The Mobile City Council currently does not have the votes to support giving the University of South Alabama (USA) $10 million over 20 years for its on-campus stadium project, but you couldn’t tell that by the roughly 75 Jaguar supporters in the Government Plaza auditorium Tuesday.
A nearly standing-room-only crowd wearing mostly USA school colors showed up, as the stadium support vote was on the council agenda once again. Like previous times, councilors punted, this time in favor of a “task force” meeting slated for Monday, Aug. 6, at 2 p.m.
The letter of intent related to the stadium deal was laid over for two weeks by the council as well. The agreement would give USA $500,000 per year for 20 years to help fund the stadium, while the university would kick back $2.5 million to allow the city to repurpose Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Sandy Stimpson urged councilors to support the letter of intent soon. He said “no” votes would be in opposition to one of the largest economic development entities in the city. He also mentioned millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs the deal could save at Ladd, where numbers provided by Stimpson’s office suggest some $33 million in maintenance costs will be needed over the next 20 years.
In contrast, the city would be giving only $10 million in support of the USA stadium.
Council Vice President Levon Manzie assigned the issue to a task force to be chaired by USA alumnus and Councilman Fred Richardson. The task force would also include Councilwoman Bess Rich and Councilman Joel Daves.
The purpose of the task force, which Manzie admitted was just another term for council committee, will be to help answer remaining questions for councilors still on the fence.
Manzie himself told the crowd he is undecided, as he supports USA but must do the best job he can for his constituents, which include residents in and around Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“If I had to vote now, it wouldn’t be a vote you’d like,” Manzie told the USA faithful, adding he believes Mobile could support two stadiums.
Unlike Manzie, Councilman John Williams said he was prepared to vote Tuesday but was against the funding proposal as currently presented.
Additionally, Williams commented on a number of unflattering emails he had received on both sides of the debate and used some of his time to advocate for civility.
“This is the third subject that has separated our city,” he said. “People will say stuff behind a keyboard that they wouldn’t say to me in person, or in public at this podium.”
Williams said he has had season tickets to Jaguar football, baseball and basketball both in the past and presently and his wife is a member of the school’s alumni association. Despite his support of the school, he said he can’t support the current funding proposal.
Richardson also told the crowd he was ready to vote. In response to Ladd Board Chairwoman Ann Davis questioning his support of the USA project, Richardson said he supports Ladd and USA. He said he would not support any item that would lead to the older stadium’s demolition.
Davis was one of the speakers in favor of keeping the status quo. She called the idea that both the Senior Bowl and Dollar General Bowl would leave Mobile if Ladd remains their only option “fake news” and confirmed the new Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy was scheduled to tour Ladd soon. Nagy has previously told the council the game could be a bigger event at a new USA stadium.
Davis, who said she supports USA football, took a swipe at the program in her remarks. She told councilors USA should build the stadium with its own money and focus on having a winning football season in order to build more financial support for the program.
Ladd manager Vic Knight told councilors the 70-year-old stadium was in good financial shape and would not need more money from the city. The city currently gives Ladd $200,000 through a performance contract. This, in addition to the $200,000 the stadium makes in profit estimated over the next two years and any future events it books after 2020, could help sustain it for five more years, Knight said.
Knight told councilors the stadium would have time to attract new events, even after USA leaves for its own field in 2020 and if the bowl games were to follow suit. Knight said the stadium would lose more than $700,000 in revenue if USA and the bowl games leave, but would also see a more than $300,000 reduction in expenses.
Josh Gulsby spoke in favor of the city’s financial support of the stadium. He said not giving USA the support and assuming the stadium could be built anyway is “risky.”
Gulsby said without an on-campus USA stadium it’s possible Mobile could lose both bowl games that act as an economic engine for the city.
Manzie invited Stimpson to a recent community meeting at Williamson High School. A majority of residents at the meeting expressed concern over giving USA stadium money and also wanted Ladd to be improved rather than replaced.
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