In a city with limited public access to its waterfront, a small floating dock could be a big step toward creating more ecotourism opportunities in Mobile.
On Wednesday, the Mobile City Council got its first look at a proposal to add such a floating dock to Cooper Riverside Park at the east end of Government Street. If approved, the project could possibly entice existing pontoon boat tours away from the Causeway and into the city.
From design to construction, the effort would cost just over $130,000, Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said, though, in keeping with its own rules, the council delayed the vote until its next meeting for an additional week of consideration.
“We have had outreach to people who feel confident they could have ecotourism boats dock here. They wouldn’t stay here but would pick up passengers,” Wesch said. “The second purpose, and probably the more critical, is that this will be evidence to federal DOT of our next step toward fulfilling the obligation to have a ferry service leave Michael C. Dow Landing.”
Wesch was referring to requirements the city has from federal Department of Transportation that helped fund the beleaguered GulfQuest Maritime Museum, as well as the landing itself.
Though low attendance is a continuing problem for GulfQuest, the DOT funding for its construction obligated the city to move toward developing the surrounding area into a transportation hub.
With talks of a ferry failing to materialize, Wesch said a floating dock could be “a small step.”
“We’re continually asked about our steps toward fulfilling that obligation,” he added. “This is a small one, but it will demonstrate that we are trying to figure that out.”
The details of the dock itself weren’t discussed at length, though Wesch did say he would be making some renderings of the proposed design available to the council before their vote next week. In a brief description, he said the dock would connect to the landing through a gangway.
The $130,000 bid from Rob’t J. Baggett Industrial Construction was the only one received for the project, which Wesch said would rely on tax increment financing (TIF) revenue generated through property taxes collected by the city.
The TIF zone that Cooper Park falls within was established to help redevelop downtown Mobile by “increasing property values, reducing blight and crime and spurring economic development.”
Within the zone, property taxes are capped at the same level as when it was established years ago. Any additional revenue collected goes into a TIF fund for revitalization efforts in that area.
Still to be decided is who would use the dock and how they would do so. Wesch said it was still too early to talk about possible businesses that could launch boats from the location, adding the administration had “engaged the market only to determine if there is interest.”
At least initially, the dock would not be open to private boaters mostly due to concerns about the city’s legal liability in the event of accident or injury. However, Wesch said the dock would be open to public foot traffic and that smaller boats might be considered down the road.
At the pre-council meeting Wednesday, Visit Mobile Director David Clark said the city’s tourism arm was firmly behind the idea, calling it a great opportunity to increase the waterfront access for potential ecotourism businesses.
Clark also noted that Mobile is an outlier among similar-sized cities because of its lack of a publicly accessible waterfront dock.
The only possible concern was raised by Councilman Fred Richardson, who said he wanted the dock to serve all businesses and residents. Specifically, Richardson said he didn’t want the dock to exclusively benefit Gulf Coast Ducks LLC, which the city has supported significantly in the past.
Those duck boat tours have been a very popular tourist attraction in the downtown area, and the city has allowed the company to lease land for a boat launch near the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center and uses TIF funding to reimburse the company up to $80,000. The boats are also allowed to use a boat launch created for Mobile Fire-Rescue Department.
“My concern is that we would build a floating dock for the duck boats,” Richardson said. “I want to make sure this floating dock is going to be for tourism for everybody. I don’t want us to put this in and then they change from over by the Convention Center and start using the floating dock to load and unload people on the duck boats.”
The council is expected to vote on the proposal for the floating dock at its Feb. 20 meeting.