It must be tough being County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood these days. Right now the practically mute commissioner has the entire weight of the decision whether or not to fund the “Connieville” soccer complex/natatorium resting upon her shoulders.
Maybe that’s a great position of power for her, or maybe she’s had to block fellow commish Connie Hudson’s phone number. We wouldn’t know because she almost never talks to the media. But now that Hudson finally revealed funding plans, Ludgood is left as the deciding vote on the three-person board that will either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to this massive project July 5.
We already know Commission President Jerry Carl will give it the Upside Down Fonzie. He’s very publicly questioned the wisdom of spending an estimated $40 million total for the project. Just the first phase will land at over $20 million, with plenty more to come. Carl thinks there are cheaper options for providing adequate soccer facilities around the county.
Hudson has poured her political blood into this project and it has become a rather quixotic mission for her to see it materialize in the swamps near the conjunction of interstates 10 and 65.
Her unseemly efforts to have Carl replaced in this election cycle by political crony Margie Wilcox was the manifestation of a longshot hope to be rid of the one person who consistently voiced opposition to her grand plan. Hudson burned a lot of political capital in that effort. But despite going as far as campaigning door-to-door and standing on the side of the road waving at motorists to defeat someone she would likely have to work with another four years, it fell flat, leaving Hudson leaning on Ludgood to make her field of dreams a reality.
The soccer complex looms larger as Hudson flails harder and harder while painting herself into a corner on this deal. It seems like almost every decision from the county has the shadow of the complex fall across it. Hudson, who was thin-skinned even in her naïve, fresh-from-the-political-womb City Council days, has become a full-on momma bear when her soccer complex cub is even perceived to be threatened.
I know we’re not the only members of the local media who either get a call or a note from Connie or county spokesperson Nancy Johnson any time the complex is focused upon. Johnson let me know that despite several offers to have Hudson come meet with our editorial board and explain her vision and answer questions we might have, Madame Commissioner would not be speaking to Lagniappe because we are “unfair” regarding her pet project.
It’s Hudson’s prerogative whether or not to speak with the local newspaper about the most expensive project currently on the books, but it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to have her minions call and complain about stories when they absolutely can’t be bothered for weeks to answer simple questions, such as who actually owns the land the county is about to buy for 3 million smackers.
I will say at this point I’m not personally terribly supportive of this project, simply because Connie has treated it like she’s asking for $25,000 for a statue of herself at the Connie Hudson Senior Center. She rolled out an economic impact study conducted by a group that looks to have skin in the game should the complex come to fruition and has been totally uninterested in discussing fine details such as how we can be sure soccer tournaments will actually choose Mobile over the formidable competition, or detailing how usage will be split between tournaments and local leagues.
There’s also been an attempt to have $40 million of BP funding dedicated for this complex, something I believe would be a gross distortion of what that money should go for.
The questions as to how the site was selected and why some owners are getting roughly $10,000 more per acre than others is another still sitting out there, but Hudson doesn’t want to talk about that. Instead, this past week she sauntered into the commission meeting and delivered a plan to fund the first phase of the project with a $20 million bond issue paid for by redirecting $1 million a year in lodging tax revenues.
That proposal was met with raspberries all around from county workers and the Mobile Area Lodging Association, whose spokesman said Hudson hadn’t even bothered to talk with them directly about this plan. As the MALA is already unhappy with the way lodging tax dollars are being spent, it’s unlikely they’ll be on Connie’s bandwagon.
Then there’s the matter of District Attorney Ashley Rich having repeatedly won suits against the county that will mean millions more per year to going to fund her office. Connie and Merceria both continue fighting that losing battle, wasting more and more money on lawyers in a fight they aren’t going to win.
Who knows what Ludgood will ultimately decide. I’m sure she’s been able to get anything she wants out of Hudson for a while now, but the rubber is about to meet the road. The idea of a successful Connie Hudson Soccer and Swimming Complex is no doubt intoxicating. You can almost taste that sweet soccer tournament money flowing in.
But then there’s the downside.
The marketability study suggests within four years the county could be seeing $11 million in additional tax revenue annually if the complex is built. And politically the reality is as long as it at least covers that $1 million a year nut, the ramifications won’t cripple any future plans for Congress, the mayor’s office or queen of lower Alabama.
But so many of the projects we’ve taken on over the past 20 years still struggle. Hank Aaron Stadium suffers from chronic EBS (empty bleachers syndrome), the cruise ship terminal has certainly seen rough seas and we’re still waiting to see if GulfQuest’s first-year attendance figures match expectations. These are all good-to-great projects worthy of support, but marketing studies have a way of being wrong sometimes, and being wrong on a $20 million or $40 million project would be a big strain on county funds.
Let’s just hope when Ludgood does finally speak, she’ll make a decision that’s well considered and not politically expedient.
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