“This is the city by the bay. Who would know?” said the 64-year-old as he sat at his computer sending yet another email — one of hundreds since his conservation effort began last summer.
Clarence Carrio, a retired insurance adjustor, said in his younger years he visited the area east of the Brookley Aeroplex, often to play golf or walk the beach to relieve stress while enjoying everything the beautiful property had to offer.
“I want to do something that makes a difference, and I think this is it,” Carrio said.
For more than a year, Carrio has been sending emails and letters to environmental organizations, politicians, wealthy and prominent individuals and the University of South Alabama Foundation in hopes of finding a way of turning the last stretch of undeveloped land along Mobile Bay into a city park. He has also reached out to several local news organizations trying to get his story publicized and has been relatively unsuccessful, until now.
The stretch of land features plenty of oaks and other trees right along the bay, providing a great view of the city’s downtown and the Eastern Shore. Carrio says that much like the Eastern Shore’s Point Clear area, the bay is quite sandy at that point and would be inviting to swimmers and sunbathers. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the area could become a destination for Mobilians who want to get next to their bay.
His quest all started with a letter to the University of South Alabama Foundation. In 2010 the USA Foundation, an endowment foundation separate from the university, purchased more than 300 acres from the University of South Alabama at a price of $20 million. The deal gave funding to USA to expand the USA Children’s & Women’s Hospital, and left the USA Foundation with prime water-front land and lots of room for development. The Foundation’s property, much of which was once a golf course, is located adjacent to the property soon to be the home of Airbus.
The USA Foundation has a development plan for the property called Brookley by the Bay, which features a hotel complex, mixed-use offices and conference space along with a small “linear park.” The idea of a linear park didn’t satisfy Carrio, and so he created the Mobile Bay Park Project with the goal of turning a section of the Brookley property into a beach and park area.
Carrio ran with this idea, and started by sending a letter to USA Foundation Director Maxey Roberts. Carrio also proceeded to contact numerous individuals, including U.S. Congressman Jo Bonner, who wrote back and said he had personally contacted the USA Foundation and requested that Carrio’s situation “be given careful attention.”
Soon after, Carrio was contacted by the Foundation. In a letter to Carrio dated Nov. 12, 2012, Roberts said as part of the planning process the Foundation has “explored several concepts to provide support to the environmental aspects of the property, including a linear park, which would be used by the public along the bay front, as well as appropriate public spaces.”
What those ideas are, though, is still up in the air. In an interview with Lagniappe Sept. 13, Roberts was unclear about how public the Brookley by the Bay development might be, though some kind of access appears to be in the cards. When asked if the development would be private or open to the public, Roberts responded, “We understand to make it accessible to the public, and to maintain and preserve the beauty, really helps the entire property, its value and the way it’s looked upon by people who may want to come on the property and use it. So we are looking at that.”
Roberts said the “new urbanist” architectural firm Architects Southwest of Lafayette, La., is taking into account the preservation of natural aspects of the property and “utilizing them in a way so that people who are on the property could have access to the bay and the beauty of the property.”
The diagram on the Brookley by the Bay website, Roberts says, is an idea based on an economic framework study.
“What we looked at was mixed-use. Some that would support the Airbus effort and some that would support general office and space that probably would be supportive of the developments around the Airbus site. The hotel or conference facility really was tied into activities Airbus might have.”
Roberts said the development process is in the “early stage because Airbus is just starting,” and the aircraft manufacturer has “not identified all of their suppliers.” However, Expressions of Interest letters were received throughout the summer, and the Foundation is now evaluating the responses.
“We’ve asked for expressions of interest from master developers to look at what the plan looked like and to respond to how that might be put into place, because the Foundation does not intend to be a developer. We want to minimize our capital outlay, and yet achieve a good return,” Roberts said.
At this point, Roberts said the Foundation can evaluate Expression of Interest responses and move forward with a particular entity, decide it’s too early to do anything, could move forward with a developer investor, or request proposals for something more specific.
Roberts did say the Foundation is happy to hear suggestions about uses for the property, and she has encouraged Carrio to meet with a committee of the board this fall. As far as the bay-front property goes, Roberts said nobody on the board has discussed the aspect of a beach, however they are going to preserve the wetlands.
RESTORE Act possible
Casi Callaway, Executive Director of Mobile BayKeeper, says she supports Carrio’s vision, but can’t back it up if it involves filling in wetlands. He has suggested the possibility of pumping more sand up on the existing narrow shoreline to create something more akin to a sunbathing and swimming spot, but that may also lose the idea some crucial support.
“The creation of a pocket beach is not a bad idea, it’s a good idea, but not if it’s going to impact wetlands in order to make it happen,” Callaway said. If wetlands are impacted, she said, they would have to be restored in the local area.
If the project doesn’t involve the wetlands though, Callaway is very supportive of the concept.
“I think that would be amazing. It is the only water-front property I think on the entire Mobile side of Mobile Bay that is accessible by the public and could actually be a beach.”
Callaway said Mobile BayKeeper has been working with the USA Foundation for about 13 years to try to create a trail or walking path alongside the bay, but has had no success. Callaway also said the Mobile United Natural Resources Committee, of which she is co-chair, has been focused this year on trying to work with the USA Foundation to see if they could get access to have a trail.
“We have had no positive response whatsoever. Frankly, just ‘no’ has been their response,” she said. “That’s so disappointing because this is a real opportunity and we’re not asking for all that much. You can still make money off of the land, you can still have a phenomenal project and it can be a win-win for the community as well.
“Getting people access to the water. Getting people access to the bay to see how beautiful it is, how special it is, is vital. We 100 percent support that, having a park, having a beach, having a pier in the area. That’s the kind of thing that brings people to the area that shows them how wonderful and special it is and gives them the opportunity to want to be more engaged with the waterfront, our beautiful community and our beautiful resources.”
But Callaway and Carrio have cited the RESTORE Act money as a possible way to fund such a park if they were to collaborate with the Foundation. However, according to Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, the use of the money is restricted.
Ludgood said the RESTORE Act money can be used for tourism protection, ecosystem restoration and economic development.
“Beach restoration is clearly covered, but creating a new beach, I don’t know,” Ludgood said.
When the money becomes available sometime in 2014, Ludgood said there will be a competitive process where people or organizations can apply for grants. Billions of dollars worth of projects have been informally proposed, Ludgood said, but there won’t be nearly enough money for the demand.
She said hopefully once an application is complete, it can go out for public comment before the end of this year. However, any proposed project would have to prove the Foundation is on board.
According to Thomas McGehee, director of Bellingrath Museum Home and contributor to Mobile Bay magazine, the Brookley property has always been privately operated.
Throughout the years McGehee said the property has been home to Bay Shell Road, the Country Club of Mobile, Frascati Park, Monroe Park, Arlington Pier and Jester’s rock garden. All of these attractions required a toll or ticket for public use.
McGehee said, in his opinion, a walking trail or bicycle path would be nice and would be a selling point to people staying in any Brookley by the Bay hotel.
Carrio’s goal now is to gather supporters in hopes of creating an organization that can establish a specific plan that can be proposed to the USA foundation.
“I would like for people to support us, to go on our website and friend us or go on Facebook and like us. It would be really helpful if they would go on our website and leave their email address and let us know if they’d be willing to volunteer,” Carrio said. “If we don’t do it here, there’s no other location. If we don’t do it now, there’s no other time. If we miss this opportunity, it will not become available again.”