After retooling her approach, Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson has successfully sold colleagues on a proposal to build a multi-field soccer complex to serve the sport’s burgeoning local community.
Commissioners voted unanimously to accept Hudson’s plan to develop what will ultimately be a 10-field soccer complex at the northwest intersection of interstates 10 and 65 on April 24, a little less than two years after voting down a similar but more costly proposal.
The county spent close to $500,000 performing environmental and economic evaluations of the proposal before the $20 million idea was nixed in 2016 over concerns that borrowing the money needed to construct it would put a burden on taxpayers.
The new plan has a smaller price tag but also fewer amenities and a smaller footprint, but Hudson said it will still have state-of-the-art fields, be able to support local youth programs and eventually help bring in competitive tournaments.
“When it’s finished and all is completed it will have the same layout, with some minor modifications to the entrance roads, but we will not be purchasing the property that was originally planned for the future development of a water park and a natatorium,” she said.
According to Hudson, the project will be completed in three phases, and at least the first of those is being financed through Hudson’s own discretionary funding for capital improvement.
Including the $1.3 million property purchase, phase 1 is expected to cost $3.7 million. The first phase will fund the construction of two tournament-quality fields and two seeded practice fields along with water and sewer, irrigation, a parking lot and an entrance road to the facility.
The commission’s vote this week authorized Hudson to move forward with a $1.3 million deal to purchase 60 acres near Lees Lane and Halls Mill Road for the first phase, though the agreement includes an 18-month option to buy 30 additional acres needed for later phases.
The county is paying roughly $22,500 an acre, less than the first real estate arrangement, which included an average price of just under $26,000 per acre.
One of the parcels is owned by Ansley Properties LLC, which is a legal entity set up by some of the heirs of prominent Mobilians Kenneth R. Giddens, William M. Lyon, Blacksher White-Spunner, Marl M. Cummings Jr., Vivian G. Johnston Jr. and C.B. Arendall Jr.
The second parcel is owned by Texas resident Mary Lou Berg.
The 30 additional acres for which the county preserved an option to buy are also owned by Ansley Properties, though a price for that possible purchase has not yet been disclosed.
The commission will also be making road improvements slated for Lees Lane and Halls Mill Road, but those projects were already funded in previous rounds of the county’s “Pay As You Go” road program that is routinely used to finance road and bridge projects.
Construction on the first phase could start by late 2018. Hudson has already set aside funding for those initial developments and said the construction and environmental permits from her first attempt are still valid or can be extended.
The total cost of the project remains unclear because detailed plans for the later phases are still being developed, but Hudson said an estimate is being put together so the project can be submitted for possible RESTORE Act funding.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue this and get it all completed, but I don’t have an exact timeline right now,” she said. “I think it will be as the money becomes available, and there’s always the hope that the city will step up and assist us as well.”
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood supported many expenditures to evaluate the project when it was first proposed, but she ultimately voted it down, saying she couldn’t support a project of that scale that would pull money from the county’s general fund. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, she called Hudson’s new plan “a masterful compromise.”
Even Hudson’s biggest opponent in previous years, Commissioner Jerry Carl, supported the complex and even complimented the way she reduced the expected cost and scope.
“I’m proud we’ve brought it down to where it’s controllable and we can grow with it, and I appreciate you for doing that,” he told Hudson. “I know this has been a project that’s near and dear to you.”
As for any recurring costs, Hudson said the Mobile United Football Club has already agreed to take on the responsibility of maintaining and operating the facility, but she clarified that the county would be in charge of who can access it.
“Somebody is offering to operate and maintain the field, but that doesn’t mean they have exclusive rights to determine who can use it,” she said. “It’s a public park owned by the county and we set those types of requirements and won’t discriminate against any soccer organizations.”
Mobile United Vice President Barry Silbernagel echoed that sentiment, telling reporters the new complex would be a great benefit not just to Mobile United FC but to “all the kids in Mobile County.”
“If you go out to Sage Park on any night, you’ll see the fields are taken. That creates a problem with overcrowding, which causes injuries,” he said. “This is definitely a growth opportunity for us, not just for Mobile United but for several other clubs here. We’ll be managing the time on it, but they’d, of course, be welcome to use it for their tournaments.”
Asked about the six-year journey that led to Tuesday’s vote, Hudson said pursuing a soccer complex had become a somewhat of a passion project for her because she’s worked with recreational and semi-pro soccer organizers and understands the need for local facilities.
“I hear all the time from the soccer community that we don’t have the facilities here in Mobile County, but yet we still have the clubs,” she said. “The sport is growing and has continued to grow in spite of the fact we haven’t had adequate facilities for an area this size.”
There were many from Mobile’s soccer community who attended Tuesday’s meeting to witness the vote that kicked off the new complex, including several of the youth soccer players and parents Hudson hopes will benefit from the new complex once it’s completed.
Reagan Knight, 12, told reporters she was “really excited” to see a full-fledged soccer complex in the works that she and her teammates can use one day. Like Silbernagel, she said the fields currently available are “only ok,” adding that playing in bad conditions can lead to injuries.
“I play mostly defense, but my coach can put me anywhere,” she said. “I’m twelve right now, and I’ve been playing soccer since I was five.”
Asked who her favorite footballer was, Knight initially named Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo before changing her answer to “me.”