Ghosts of budget negotiations reappeared Tuesday morning during a Mobile City Council discussion over the price for installing synthetic soccer fields at Herndon Park on Sage Avenue.

Late last year, the city approved a $25,280 contract with Espalier LLC for design of three fields at the park to replace two existing grass soccer fields and convert one grass softball field to a soccer field, but not before a discussion over the cost of installation.

While the approved contract covered design work, John Williams asked Director of Architectural Engineering Brad Christensen about the price of the synthetic grass fields. Christensen told Williams the price tag on the fields was between $500,000 and $800,000 each, without adding in costs for drainage.

While some councilors balked at the cost of the new fields, Bill Harkins, executive director of Public Works, said the price would be made up in the very little maintenance and upkeep required.

When asked to compare the price of synthetic fields to grass fields, Colby Cooper, Mayor Sandy Sitmpson’s chief of staff, said a new grass field would cost between $100,000 and $200,000, depending on grading and drainage issues. He said turf fields can last for more than decade without maintenance.

“The community has been unsatisfied with field conditions,” Cooper told councilors. “We don’t have grass on those fields, it’s dirt …”

Councilwoman Bess Rich questioned the need for all three synthetic fields at one time. Instead, she suggested testing one synthetic field and going with natural grass on the other two. She used Medal of Honor Park as an example. She said the grass fields there, if there is a problem with drainage, the city has maintained it and it’s “in good condition.”

“I don’t see a need for turf in parks if they are well maintained,” she said. “You could use turf on one field to see if it lasts.”

Councilman Joel Daves then questioned the council’s decision to move $1.5 million out of the Parks and Recreation budget to support the county’s proposed soccer complex.
“The council took $1.5 million out of the recreation budget for soccer fields we don’t own and now we’re going to squabble over fields we do own,” he said. “I’d much rather spend the money on our own fields than have $1.5 million floating in the ether.”

Williams suggested the county’s plan for a soccer complex would take a decade or more to come to fruition.

Meanwhile, Rich defended her support of the county complex, saying it’s due to be completed much sooner. Rich also said it’s a disservice to the soccer community that the city doesn’t have a soccer complex yet.

Councilman Fred Richardson endorsed the change to turf fields at the park in his district.

“It’s our park,” he said. “I say, let’s move on it.”

Before the measure was approved, the council heard from Chad Harrelson of the Mobile United soccer club. Harrelson said synthetic fields would be better in the long run for Herndon Park, as its three fields see a lot of use. He said, in addition to the youth league, the park’s soccer fields are used by five high schools, the Catholic Youth Organization, two men’s soccer leagues, club lacrosse and recreation leagues.

“There’s no way to put grass out there and keep it out there,” he said. “Obviously I’d rather play on grass, any athlete would, but if we’re going to have high impact we need to have synthetic fields.”

When pressed by Rich on the number of synthetic fields needed, Harrelson said two would be good, but three would be better.

Harrelson compared Mobile to smaller cities in Baldwin County. He said when its planned complex is completed, Fairhope will have a total of 14 lighted, ready-to-play fields while Mobile will have two. He also said Pensacola has at least 30 fields in two separate complexes.

“That’s how far behind we are in just one sport,” he said, noting there is a broad enthusiasm for better facilities among the local soccer community. “I envision it to be a center where people will want to come,” he said.

In other business, the council voted to authorize Stimpson to pursue a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for a litter boat for Three-Mile Creek. The grant would require $50,000 in matching local funds. Awards will be announced this summer.

The council also voted to rezone property on the west side of Furr Street, north of Old Shell Road in Crichton, from residential to business. The move allows Bebo’s to build a storage facility for record keeping, Richardson said. There was some talk about restricting the use to only a storage facility, or allowing the zoning to revert back to residential, if Bebo’s owners decided to sell.

“The lot that’s in question has been vacant for years,” Richardson said in response to questions from concerned property owner Esther Hosey. “This will have a positive impact on your property values because it will decrease blight.”
The council also approved a $245,000 contract with MIG, Inc. to
design an easy way to get pedestrians across portions of Water Street.
The council approved a $336,610 contract with Payne Environmental to administer the city’s stormwater permits through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Stimpson was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because he was en route to Washington, D.C., Cooper told the council. Stimpson would be participating in the national prayer breakfast, while also meeting with White House officials to further discuss the proposed Interstate 10 bridge project. Cooper noted the meeting comes as President Barack Obama has committed $478 billion for road and bridge projects nationwide in his new budget. The Republican-controlled Congress, however, is expected to counter with a separate budget that may not emphasize similar priorities.