After much discussion in the media, the absence of two members prompted the Mobile City Council to delay a vote affirming $1.5 million from the city’s park budget to a land purchase for Mobile County’s proposed soccer complex at the I-65/I-10 corridor.
The decision also included putting a hold on seven park improvement projects the office of Mayor Sandy Stimpson announced on June 1. In what some councilors have called political pandering, that announcement came with an ultimatum — the projects wouldn’t be possible without rescinding the pledge to cover almost half of the county’s $3.1 million land purchase.Though both sides have acknowledged the need for park improvements and proper soccer facility, the discussion turned a rocky during today’s meeting when Councilwoman Bess Rich called Stimpson’s action “distressing and totally uncalled for.”
Rich, citing a letter to the council Stimpson’s office released to the media the day before, asked the council reconsider the support its pledge to the county’s land purchase in a memorandum of understanding in August 2014.
She described the letter as an attempt to undermine the counselors and said it omitted vital information. Namely, that the agreement previously made with the county would return the money to the city if the land isn’t purchased for the project or if construction of the facility doesn’t begin within two years of the purchase.
“It’s unfortunate that the mayor doesn’t respect the decision of a supermajority of the council to support a county initiative that will be built in the center of our city,” Rich said. “ I thought political games were a thing of the past and our city had risen to a higher standard.”
In a pre-conference meeting, Rich discussed last year’s memorandum of understanding, saying the pledge was something the council “had every right to do.” On the same agenda today were seven park improvement projects — one for each of the city’s seven districts.
Rich said, at least in her district, the projects weren’t even in line with the capital improvement priorities the districts have previously established. In District 6, Bess said repairing or replacing the playground at Medal of Honor Park was identified by constituents as a top priority.
She also said other funding — either through a penny sales tax or additional parking revenue in fiscal year 2016 — could pay for the park upgrades in the future. Rich further said she’s awaiting the results of the study funded through her district’s discretionary funds that will identify the best ways to move forward with improvements at Medal of Honor Park.
Stimpson took issue with Rich’s claim that he was under the office of the councilors. In his comments during the meeting, Stimpson also told them respect was a “two way street.’
If the council ultimately decides to keep their pledge to the county, Stimpson said he would support the project, but he again brought up the latest of the numerous studies Mobile County has funded for its much-debated soccer facility.
Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA) was paid $48,000 by the Mobile County Commission in April to conduct a marketability study, and when the results were released last week they show great potential for tax revenue for Mobile County and city of Mobile.
However, SFA also has a sister company that manages the types of facilities the county is looking to construct. In correspondence to the public, Stimpson has suggested that SFA’s interest in managing the facility could move them to skew the results of their study.
He suggested a “bona fide study” be conducted by “an independent organization” — comments that drew criticism not only from Rich but also from Commission President Connie Hudson.
“(Managing the facility) was never even on the table in any of our discussions with SFA,” Hudson said prior to today’s council meeting. “If SFA were to end up managing it, you can be assured it would be professionally managed, but we haven’t had any conversation about that. I hate they’ve been impugned by his comments.”
Hudson also said the county would definitely be hiring some third party to manage the facility once it’s up and running. Even with assistance from the Mobile Sports Authority, Hudson said recruiting tournaments and events would be a fulltime job the county doesn’t have the staffing for currently.
Her statements didn’t stop Stimpson from bringing up the SFA study or from taking a jab at the number of large government projects Mobile has undertaken in the past.
“Yes there’s been a lot of research and economic studies done, but there were also economic studies done for other things that continue to drain the city’s resources every year,” Stimpson said. “Until every ‘T’ is crossed and ‘I’ is dotted, I’m going to encourage the citizenry to engage in the conversation to make sure we, as the stewards of their money, make sure this is the wisest use of their money.”
During the meeting, Donna Jordan with Mobile Baykeeper spoke in support of Stimpson’s measure to pursue parking funding rather than commit most of the city’s parks budget to a county project.
She said existing parks are still in need of paint, trash cans, funding for trails and additional sidewalks — improvements she said would be inline with the Greenway Initiative, which aims to create biking and walking trails throughout Mobile.
Jordan was followed by Chad Harrelson of the Mobile United Football Club, who has long been a supporter of adding soccer facilities to Mobile County. Harrelson said Mobile County has about 35 less soccer fields than any other county its size. He also said his football club alone couldn’t practice all its teams on the current fields, even if they were given 24-hour access five days a week.
All in all, the council’s contribution will only help with the $3.1 million land purchase. Finding the estimated $40 million needed to fund the soccer and aquatic complex will be the burden of the Mobile County Commissioners — two of whom attended today’s council meeting.
On the council, Rich, Council President Gina Gregory and Vice President Fred Richardson have all approved the $1.5 million contribution to the land purchase and have all vocalized support for the measure in recent meetings.
John Williams, councilman for District 4, was the only member who spoke against funding the land purchase. However, he was very clear to say he wasn’t against a soccer facility or the soccer community in Mobile.