Hundreds turned out for a hearing on a publicly-funded soccer complex last night as consultant Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA) presented the results of a $48,000 marketability study the Mobile County Commission approved in February.

Based on the plans for a 10-field facility with an anticipated waterpark, SFA looked at the possible costs of operating the complex and how much the county might gain from from direct revenue and total economic impact when or if it becomes operational.

While most of the results of the study showed a positive financial forecast, there were several people in attendance opposed to committing more than $20 million to the facility slated for near the intersection of I-10 and I-65.

Evan Eleff, vice president of SFA, opened the meeting with a lengthy presentation that gave more of idea to how the project could shape up if it’s funded in the future.

According to Eleff, Sports tourism across the country is a $200 billion travel industry, and of that, the fastest growing segment is youth and amature sports — generating around $9 billion annually. Youth sports tourism has also grown 20 percent over the past three years, he reported.

“It’s also the only segment that didn’t decline during a single quarter of the recession,” Eleff said. “I’m not going to say it’s recession proof, but I would say it’s recession resistant, because in tough economic times, people are still willing to spend money on their kids.”

As for Mobile County, SFA wanted to see how it would stack up against other current facilities in the region and across the state would be competing for the same type of sports tournaments. Looking at the proposed size, Eleff said the facility in Mobile be ideally set up for tournaments of 80 to 120 sports teams.

Of the 91 regional events analyzed, that would mean 54 percent would be too large for the planned 10-field facility. However, Eleff did say it would be possible to partner with competing complexes in Orange Beach, Foley and Fairhope for a larger regional tournament.

As for that competition, SFA ranked the proposed facility in Mobile’s potential for attracting regional tournaments and compared with others around the state.

According to that data, Mobile would rank second among facilities within a one hour drive — falling behind a 16-field facility planned in Foley. Of the 40 facilities within a five-hour drive, Eleff said Mobile would likely rank 7th.

As he’s stated previously, Eleff said Mobile’s biggest advantage is the number of hotels and restaurants it has to support sportism, which has said is certainly more other facilities in a competitive drive time.

All of that data was leading up to the big factor, which is the economic impact of the project. Conservatively, Eleff said the project could generate at least eight competitive events in its first year of operation. That would mean somewhere around 10,000 room nights with a $112 per-person expenditure each day.

When multiplied for its economic effect, Eleff said the county would see a $6.1 million impact in its first year. With increased usage, the number is projected to grow to $11.4 million by the facility’s fifth year in operation.

Despite the positive report on economic impact, District 3 Commissioner Jerry Carl said he had his doubts about those numbers and about what it might cost manage the day-to-day operations of the facility as its currently proposed.

According to Carl, the county currently pays close to $500,000 annually to maintain five baseball fields in West Mobile.

Eleff did say there would be some operational costs the study didn’t account for, and said it’s likely the expenditures would outweigh direct revenues in first years of the complex’s operation. Further, he showed data that predicted anywhere from $350,000 to $411,000 of annual expenses associated with the complex.

However, he said the economic impact would offset any operational losses.

“You’ve got a net financial impact that’s positive in year one,” Eleff said. “The question is, would you be willing to spend $260,000 in year one to get $400,000 of tax revenue.”

Chad Harrelson, the executive director of Mobile United Football Club, attended the meeting with several of his players and said the numbers were “better than he expected.” He’s been a champion of the project since it was first discussed.

According to Harrelson, Most areas this size have 30 to 40 fields at their disposal, while Mobile only has the three lighted regulation fields at Sage Park. He also quick to count those who have compared the soccer complex to the long linage of failed government projects in Mobile County.

“People say this is another cruise terminal or another maritime museum, but I don’t believe before that terminal opened there were any people standing downtown waiting for a cruise ship,” Harrelson said. “We’ve had kids in the thousands that have been without fields for far too long. It’s time for us to make an investment in our kids.”

Carl said he agreed with the needs for a soccer facility, he just wasn’t sold on the current prices and burden will come with the current plan. However, he wasn’t the only one in Government Plaza not showing support for the project.

As has become common at these meetings, more than 100 county employees showed up to address commissioners about this project and recent changes to certain employee benefits. Lt. Richard Cayton of the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association took the mic and repeatedly asked commissioners to reinstate the health insurance plan the county used until April of last year.

Patrick Pile, a retiree of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, said the county shouldn’t be in the “entertainment business” it should be in the “road and bridge business.” He also argued that the Mobile County District Attorney’s office has been underfunded for years, which led to a legal battle with the commission.

“If the county has money go ahead and pay for it. If you don’t have the money, don’t go into debt building a soccer complex,” Pile said. “If you go in debt, you’re going to force the future county commissions to pass another one cent sales tax and the people don’t want that.”

Following the meeting, members of the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association revealed the results of a telephone survey they had conductedrecently. That survey asked residents the following question: “Do you believe Mobile County Citizens should be able to vote on whether the county spends $20 to $40 million taxpayer dollars on a proposed soccer complex?”

According to results provided by Cayton, more than 1,4000 residents were polled and 88 percent said they would support a referendum to determine the fate of the project. Oddly enough, the district showing the most support for a referendum was District 2, which is represented by Commission President Connie Hudson.
Hudson has been the champion of the soccer complex in current location since the project was originally brought up for discussion in early 2014.