One of the best 13U soccer teams in the state is sometimes forced to dodge flying softballs during its practice.
Daniel Whelan, the coach of the team of club players from the Mobile area, said because of a lack of nearby soccer facilities, his team is forced to practice around the outside of a softball field at Cottage Hill Park. Occasionally, his club deals with sharing the space with adult softball teams.
“It’s a shame,” Whelan said about the state of soccer facilities in the county.
Whelan, who also serves as the head coach of the University of Mobile’s soccer team, said the area is “so far behind” in terms of soccer infrastructure, despite the status of the sport picking up.
“Soccer is becoming more popular here because the game itself has become more global and more accessible than in the past,” he said. “(English Premier League) games can be seen on NBC now. The growth is just going to continue.”
Whelan said two Mobile-area clubs alone have more than 500 children participating in youth soccer. Mobile United has 22 teams, with 11 to 12 youngsters per roster. Mobile Bay FC has roughly 300 players, and includes teams in Mobile and the Eastern Shore, he said.
In addition to the local youth component, big money can be made from hosting youth soccer tournaments. Dr. Christopher Keshock, an assistant professor of sport and recreation administration at the University of South Alabama, said $300,000 in revenue can be generated for a municipality by hosting a tournament. There are also nine county schools that field soccer teams, adding to the need, he said.
Mobile County commissioners agree with Whelan and want to develop a soccer complex in the area, but they disagree on where to put it and how much each proposal will cost taxpayers.
Commissioner Connie Hudson has a plan to develop land near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 65, across from Hank Aaron Stadium, while Commissioner Jerry Carl has his eyes set on a parcel on McDonald Road in Irvington.
Hudson said her plan would result in the development of 10 to 12 soccer fields to attract youth tournaments, a cross-country running trail and the possibility of an aquatic center in the future. She said her plan would require the purchase of about 100 acres, with 80 acres being donated by a local developer. She said the total cost of the project would be approximately $12.1 million.
About eight acres of the property included in Hudson’s plan are part of the Wragg Swamp and would be considered wetlands. Hudson said the plan includes on-site wetlands mitigation.
Hudson said she couldn’t release how much she expects the land to cost because it would hinder the county’s ability to negotiate a price.
Carl said his plan would also allow for 10 to 12 soccer fields, as well as baseball and softball fields, and the possibility for a high school football stadium in the future.
The land for Carl’s plan, located three miles south of I-10 in Irvington, is currently owned by the school system. He said the system would be willing to lease the property to the county for $1 a year for 99 years.
“The entire property is 400 acres,” he said. “So, there’s room for expansion.”
The commissioners also disagree on the pricetag of different proposals. Carl said his plan would cost taxpayers roughly $5.5 million, while Hudson said the Irvington parcel would cost closer to $14 million to develop.
Carl believes his option is about $7 million cheaper than Hudson’s. He said the development of the fields would be the same $5.5 million, but he added that Hudson’s plan would require another $1.5 million for the purchase of the land.
Mike Speaks, with Speaks Engineering, was responsible for the preliminary master plan for the Irvington site. He said plans for the construction of 10 soccer fields, lighting and engineering would cost “somewhere around $5 million,” although final plans haven’t been completed.
“We feel comfortable with those numbers,” Speaks said.
Carl said softball and baseball fields on the property would cost roughly $1.5 million more, and any action on a future football stadium would have to come from the school system.
Keshock performed a site suitability study on both locations. He said, based on the study, the site at I-10 and I-65 would be a better option for the county for a number of reasons. For one, he said, it is closer to retail and restaurant options, which would increase visitors’ “proclivity to spend.”
“People will typically spend more when options are within walking distance,” he said.
Keshock added the complex should be built “first and foremost” for Mobile County residents, since they are footing the bill. He said Hudson’s site would serve more county residents than the Irvington site. Keshock said that while the county’s population is moving west, Hudson’s proposal puts the fields within a two-mile radius of more county residents than Carl’s proposal, because the Irvington site would be closer to the Mississippi line and to residents of the neighboring state.
Hudson said Carl’s proposal uses land that is too far away from where the highest percentage of the county population is located.
“Yes mine is far out, but where is the population moving?” Carl asked.
One major drawback for the site at I-10 and I-65 would be the traffic headaches it could cause, Keshock said.
“Plus cut-ins might be needed, which would add to the cost,” Keshock said.
He added that crime is a bigger concern in that area, as well.
Keshock said whatever site is chosen, a concession stand should be an integral part of any of the plans, as about half of the money spent at youth tournaments is spent on-site.
“Concession stands can pay for operational costs and maintenance for tournaments,” he said.
Whelan said, as a tournament coach, he’d prefer a site close to Airport Boulevard, adding that teams would travel greater distances to play in tournaments near hotels and restaurants than not.
“Tournaments are about location,” Whelan said. “I don’t think Theodore would be attractive to tournament teams. I think if it were closer to the downtown area, it would be more attractive.”
Whelan added that new facilities could attract teams from greater distances. For example, he said, he’s more inclined to travel to Birmingham for tournaments, rather than Montgomery, because the facilities in the state’s largest city are better.
All parties hope a decision on where to place the proposed complex will be made soon. It’s up to Commissioner Merceria Ludgood to break the tie. She said last week she wasn’t ready to vote one way or the other.
“I’m still collecting data,” she said. “The decision will be data-driven.”
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