Despite dealing with news of its impending closure for years now, the management company of the Mobile Civic Center expects to see an increase in attendance and events in fiscal year 2019 over the previous two years.
This year the 55-year-old facility is expected by SMG to host 360 event days. In contrast, the facility hosted 292 event days in fiscal year 2017 and 2018. The attendance of 186,835 at the facility this year is expected to just edge out 2018’s mark of 185,765 and 2017’s mark of 175,927.
While the number of events through September are expected to outpace every year since fiscal year 2015, the ticket sales that year and 2016 were greater.
All in all, SMG, which also manages the Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center and Mobile’s Saenger Theatre, does the best it can booking the facility that lacks modern amenities, General Manager Kendall Wall said.
“People don’t realize it,” he said of the number of events the facility hosts. “When you’re focused on Mardi Gras yourself, that’s all you think about. You sometimes don’t realize all the other things going on.”
That being said, Wall did acknowledge some challenges, especially concerning the age of the building. One such issue is with the weight the facility’s ceiling rigging can hold. When the facility opened, the 110-pound weight limit was not a problem, Wall said, but now the average weight limit on rigging is about 150 pounds. This, he said, makes a difference for bands who use elaborate light displays in shows. Some will choose another Gulf Coast option, like the Pensacola Bay Center.
The design of the building is also outdated and provides challenges, Wall said.
“There are 10,000 seats in a round building, which means sightlines are not the best,” he said. “There are about 6,500 to 7,000 good seats. A lot are behind the stage and we can’t even use them.”
Also at issue and involving the age of the building is newer facilities have suites, or luxury boxes, which the Civic Center arena does not.
“In 1964, those kind of things were not on the radar,” Wall said.
Maintenance is also an issue due to the building’s age, he said. For example during Mardi Gras this year, the venue lost one of its air conditioning units and had issues with another. SMG and the city had to find a temporary solution, renting a huge portable air conditioner.
Another challenge to booking events is the uncertainty about the facility’s future. Wall said he’s heard from promoters who thought the venue had already been shut down.
There are more modern venues within close proximity of Mobile, too, which causes an issue. The city of Pensacola has maintained the Bay Center, while the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi was renovated following Hurricane Katrina. In addition, New Orleans has the Mercedes Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center within a two-hour radius, Wall said.
A new venue, or even a renovated venue, would have enough support in Mobile to be a worthwhile investment, Wall said.
“With this size market, we need to provide that,” he said. “We’re hoping that’s something the city will evaluate.”
In addition to a number of entertainment events like “Paw Patrol Live,” Distinguished Young Women, the Mobile Ballet, opera and others, indoor sports have also become commonplace at the Civic Center.
Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority, touted a number of events hosted there.
The facility has hosted a gymnastics meet, a cheer competition and a wrestling tournament recently and has those events on the books for next year, Corte said. On average, the Civic Center hosts three to four Sports Authority events per year.
The center has hosted volleyball and basketball events each year as well, but Corte said some of those events have better success in a newer venue in Foley.
“We need an event center like that,” he said of the Civic Center. “I would love to have an event center bigger than Foley’s.”
Stirling properties group bows out
While the city is still debating what will be done with the entire Civic Center footprint, the options appear to have dwindled a bit.
Mobile Civic Center Redevelopment Partners LLC, which has been referred to as the Stirling Group, wrote a letter to CBRE Senior Vice President David Fullington last week informing him of the group’s decision to leave the competition and explaining why. The group had been one of two finalists selected by CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment firm tapped by Mayor Sandy Stimpson to oversee the process of developing proposals for a public-private partnership for redevelopment of the Civic Center. Stirling Properties Vice President William Barrois signed the letter pulling his group from the competition.
“Unfortunately, despite our sincere desire to be a part of the redevelopment of this site, we feel that the project objectives and scope have fundamentally moved beyond what we contemplated when we decided to pursue this project,” Barrois wrote. “Further, we believe that our competitor responded in a radically different way than we did to the request for proposal (RFP), making comparisons of proposals challenging to say the least.”
More specifically, Barrois said a July 15 presentation by CBRE to the City Council revealed the financial details of Stirling’s plan, but the same types of numbers were not presented for the other finalist, Cordish Companies.
“Our view is that the RFP required this level of disclosure, but we understand that the competing team did not make a similarly detailed proposal,” Barrois wrote.
Barrois said his team, which consisted of 17 local, regional and national companies, put together a plan responsive to the RFP that included a new multi-purpose arena. The Cordish plan does not include an arena.
“As reflected in our proposal, we envisioned that this 22-acre tract would be anchored by a modern, multi-functional 7,500-seat events center that would be a community asset — accommodating an array of indoor sporting events, concerts, stage performances and, of course, our beloved Mardi Gras celebrations,” he wrote.
So far in the process, Stimpson and members of the City Council have visited other developments built and managed by Cordish, but have not done likewise for any of the properties run by the Stirling group. Barrois wrote that it seemed clear the mayor and CBRE were in favor of the Cordish plan.
“In summary, our response was simply that we believe an events center of some scale is necessary to activate this part of downtown Mobile and to achieve all the city’s objectives. The movement away from the Civic Center facility was underscored by the presentation that CBRE made to the City Council on July 15,” he wrote. “It seemed clear that the Mayor and CBRE favored a competing proposal that did not include an events center but did have a commercial outdoor entertainment district product.”
City spokesman George Talbot wrote in a text message that Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office would remain on a September timeline in recommending a project to the Mobile City Council, despite Stirling’s decision.
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