As has become common in discussions on the issue, there was some noticeable tension in the room Dec. 10 when Mobile County Commissioners accepted a master plan for the proposed soccer and aquatic complex on Halls Mill Road.
The 10-field facility, mapped out in an $18,000 plan from the Neel-Schaffer firm, is expected to be built in multiple phases.
By accepting the plan, the commission will allow the firm to start the permitting process required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — moving one step closer toward the project’s realization.
According to Commission President Connie Hudson, Neel-Schaffer requested the commission vote to confirm the plan before proceeding with the Corps’ application.
“It was the consensus of engineering and legal (staff) that it is better to ‘err’ on the side of transparency and take a formal vote to confirm intentions,” Hudson said in an email. “The permit is required by law because the proposal would disturb wetlands; in this case, five to eight acres of the total 200-acre tract. (It) applies to the plan submitted, and any changes in the future to the plan would require the county to go back to the Corps to amend the permit.”
Though accepting the plan only moves the permitting process forward, some in attendance — including Lt. Richard Cayton of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office — took issue with the lack of public involvement in the planning of the facility.
Cayton questioned why the resolution to consider accepting Neel-Schaffer’s master plan was only added to the commission’s agenda the day before the meeting.
“The taxpayers of this county aren’t being led to know what’s going on down here — everything’s done as a last minute thing,” Cayton said. “If you’re spending $9 to $20 to $40 million dollars, there should be more than 18 hours notice to the general public.”
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said approving the plan wouldn’t cost any money, and that it was common to add items to an agenda just before meetings. She also said handling the Corps’ permit applications was included in the original bid from Neel-Schaffer.
“This is not any kind of smoke and mirrors,” Ludgood said. “We understand the public is interested in this, but this resolution is basically affirming something that’s already in a contract, a contract that was discussed in a public meeting.”
Ludgood also said there’s been no consideration of borrowing money related to the facility’s construction.
In his closing comments, Commissioner Jerry Carl — who has consistently voted against the proposed facility in favor of a cheaper option of his own — said he had given up trying to change any of his fellow commissioners’ minds about the project.
He then proceeded to call the current proposed location “a swamp,” which caused an exchange between he and Hudson, who employed assistance at the meeting from Barry Vittor of the environmental consulting firm Barry. A. Vittor and Associates.
When asked by Hudson, Vittor said in the “worst-case scenario” only eight acres of “low to mid-grade wetlands” would be affected if the entire master plan was implemented. Hudson also pointed out that other developments near the proposed site on the I-10/I-65 corridor have affected far more wetlands.
“This is not a swamp, people, and it’s wrong to say that,” Hudson said. “We’re trying to be responsible in everything we’re moving forward to do, especially when it comes to environmental concerns.”
The discussion of funding, which has proven highly contentious amongst some county employees, was also brought up during the meeting by both Carl and merit system employees who requested to address the commission.
“I’m afraid what we’re working on here is the county’s version of a string of pearls,” Carl said, referring to the city of Mobile’s financial obligation to projects like the Alabama Cruise Terminal and GulfQuest, that have cost far more than projected and failed to live up to expectations. “When I was elected, I understood our responsibilities to be roads and bridges, our employees and the safety of our neighborhoods — everything else is just extra. I understand the vision of wanting to build something, but I’m afraid this string of pearls is becoming an anchor.”
Carl framed his comments by bringing up the recent issue some of the county’s employees have taken with stagnant wages and substandard benefits.
However, Ludgood said the issue isn’t, “a raise or a soccer complex,” and said the construction of the facility couldn’t begin without raising some type of new revenue. She also again said the commission isn’t “about to go into $40 million worth of debt to” to build the complex.
Hudson brought up the 5 percent raise for employees approved in the county’s most recent budget, and said money used for operations and money used for the soccer complex would have to come from two separate places.
“You can’t give raises on borrowed money, and we can’t stop doing public infrastructure improvements,” Hudson said. “This is what happened with the city of Mobile. When they put everything into operation, everything began to crumble, and our citizens expect to have these amenities, nice parks and things they and their families can enjoy. This is part of our job. The only way I know how to move is to keep moving forward.”
Moving forward, the cost of the first two phases of the complex are roughly known, but the funding for the total project is still uncertain.
When Neel-Schaffer originally showcased their designs Nov. 10, the first two phases — including only the soccer facilities — we’re priced at approximately $20 million.
Phase 1 would include the construction of a championship field, four adult playing fields, a 240-space parking lot, entrances from Halls Mill Road, practice areas and concession and bathroom areas with a price tag of $9.8 million. Phase 2 would add four additional fields as well as three additional parking areas for approximately $11 million.
The third phase would include $12 million for a swimming facility and an additional $200,000 for cross-country nature trails.
A fourth phase looks to add a water park on the property, but prices for such an addition were not included in Neel-Schaffer’s masterplan because the scale of the water park remains uncertain. Hudson said those details aren’t fleshed out because it’s not yet clear how a water park would be funded.
“Right now the only thing we have is the property set aside for the concept,” Hudson said. “The idea here is to work with a developer who’s interested in coming in, looking at the property and developing it for us in a public-private partnership. I don’t see the county doing that portion of this park.”
A breakdown of the entire project was estimated at “roughly” $40 million when the county submitted it for consideration for RESTORE Act funding. In that summary, the water park feature is priced at $7,143,300, which Hudson called a “very rough” estimate.
“I think it could be anywhere from $5-25 million if you put a splash pad, a lazy river and all kinds of slides,” she said. “It just depends on how many acres you take up and what amenities you have.”
Hudson said those amenities would be decided by the developer when, and if, a private partner is brought on board.
In the meantime, Cayton said he and other members of Mobile County Merit System Employees Association would be seeking assistance from Mobile’s legislative delegation in the coming months.
“We’re going to ask the legislators for a bill to put this up for vote,” Cayton said. “Whenever you spend that type of money, I think the citizens have a right to decide and to vote on it.”
$5 million approved for capital equipment purchases
Commissioners also approved a debt issuance for the purchase of $5 million in capital equipment for public safety, infrastructure and voting equipment.
The new funding will provide $3.5 million to the road and bridge department for replacement of numerous dump trucks as well as the purchase of a grader, excavator and mowers.
Another $765,000 is budgeted for the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office for sheriff’s cars and other law enforcement equipment. Purchases also will include three ambulances and related emergency medical equipment for EMS at a cost of $405,000.
Other scheduled purchases include trucks for Mobile County Animal Control and the Mobile County voting machine warehouse.
Overall, the county’s debt payments — even with the new issue — will be down by $2 million from the 2014 fiscal year.