A new arena proposed by one of two developers of the Civic Center property could cost the city more than $8 million per year in debt service, a representative of the city’s real estate consultant told members of the Mobile City Council this week.
CBRE Executive Vice President of Public Institutions and Education Solutions Michael B. McShea told councilors the developer group made up of Stirling Properties, Corporate Realty and Hunt have proposed a mixed-use concept consisting of a grocery store, apartments and an event center to hold Mardi Gras events and concerts. To make the concept work, though, Stirling has asked the city to foot the bill for the $66 million event center by floating a bond.
“It was our view that this scheme was less-than-inspired,” McShea said. “We asked them to reconsider it; to exclude the arena as it’s currently situated.”
It’s unclear what that means for the Stirling concept, as Mayor Sandy Stimpson seemed unsure of what a new concept would, or would not include.
As for other aspects of the concept, Council Vice President Levon Manzie, who represents the downtown area, appeared taken aback by the number of apartment buildings included in the Stirling renderings.
“Is that a new Civic Center I see with five apartment buildings?” Manzie asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The Stirling Properties plan represents a total investment of more than $250 million, consultants confirmed.
A second developer, the Cordish Companies, has scraped the arena altogether for what it has called a “live” concept, McShea said. The “live” concept, which is present in a number of larger cities, including Baltimore, Louisville, Kentucky, and St. Louis, features a large outdoor space surrounded by office, retail and restaurant buildings, McShea said.
Lee Ann Korst, CBRE first vice president of advisory and transaction services, told councilors she visited Ballpark Village outside of Busch Stadium in St. Louis. She said the large outdoor space and several of the restaurants could accommodate the thousands of Carnival revelers, similar to how the St. Louis facility hosts New Year’s Eve parties.
Not only does Cordish own its own restaurant group complete with themed eateries, but the company is also the second-largest entertainment booking operation in the country, McShea said. The Cordish concept would incorporate the Civic Center theater.
Another aspect of the Cordish development was the downtown connectivity. The scheme would incorporate the existing Spanish Plaza and make the downtown area more accessible, McShea said.
As for new restaurants pulling patrons away from downtown staples, Stimpson said there could be room to accommodate both, like in Louisville, where he and councilors toured a similar concept. He acknowledged that a lot of the money the city benefits from in a concept like that comes from parking and sales tax.
Stimpson said, in Louisville, locals avoid the “live” concept and instead focus on another entertainment district. It could be the same here with the Civic Center property serving more tourists and Dauphin Street serving more locals, he said. This, of course, would rely on an increase in tourism to the city, he added. In 2017, Mobile County hosted 3.4 million tourists, and Stimpson said he’d like that number to be closer to 6 million.
The Cordish Companies’ plan does not come with financial figures, but it is assumed by all that the city will have to make some kind of fiscal commitment.
Councilors seemed split on the two concepts. Following the presentation, Councilman Fred Richardson said all cities Mobile’s size have 5,000-to-10,000-seat arenas
“I think we’d be going backward,” he said. “They were thinking forward when they built it. The reason no one here is going there is because they’re not bringing in the right shows. We need a place we can bring these events.”
Council Vice President Manzie was more open-minded about some of the plans. However, he seemed less impressed about the idea for apartments.
“All of this is impressive,” he said. “We don’t need outside groups to develop apartments downtown …. We don’t need an outside developer to bring in a grocery store …. We’ve got people here that can do that.”
Councilwoman Gina Gregory seemed to have a mixed reaction, asking McShea and others if Cordish would be willing to work around a new, or refurbished arena.
“This is fabulous for really big cities, but Mobile is a small city,” she said. “This may be ambitious for us.”
McShea responded by telling councilors a consensus of the consultants believed an arena concept would be “expensive and difficult” to keep competitive.
Councilman Joel Daves seemed to be more in favor of the Cordish offering. He argued the city needed to make a smart investment and avoid another arena.
“This will require some kind of investment by the city,” he said. “If that’s the case, we shouldn’t put it in a concept that is 50 years old.”
In a letter to Stimpson, leaders of eight Mardi Gras societies wrote that they preferred the Stirling Properties concept because it incorporates the use of the existing facility during redevelopment and includes a new event center.
The societies represented in the letter include the Mystics of Time, the Crewe of Columbus, Conde Cavaliers, Neptune’s Daughters, Order of LeShe’s, Order of Polka Dots, Pierrettes and the Mystic Stripers Society. While eight signatures appear on the letter, only five of the eight leaders used their own names as a signature.
The societies wrote that any move of balls and other festivities, even temporary, to the Brookley Aeroplex would be “devastating” for Mardi Gras’ economic impact and could make the proposition too expensive for members.
“The cost of the celebration of Mardi Gras in this community is borne in large part by the members of our respective societies, who through their dues and contributions, fund elaborate floats, costumes and events that are at the heart of this celebration,” the letter read. “However, it is our partnership with the city that ultimately allows Mardi Gras to be successful. In order to maintain the current success of the city’s Mardi Gras celebration, the city must do its part to provide parade support and, equally important, to continue to provide a public facility in downtown Mobile to accommodate these balls and receptions.”
Instead, the leaders suggested the use of the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center as a temporary home.
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