The Mobile City Council on Tuesday approved funding the county soccer complex project with $1.5 million from $3 million in capital funds originally set aside for park improvements.
Councilwoman Bess Rich introduced the amendment to the fiscal year 2015 budget, which was approved by a 5-2 vote.
Rich said she introduced the amendment because she had heard Mayor Sandy Stimpson talk about replacing grass soccer fields at Medal of Honor Park with turf fields.
She said she thought this was a better use of the capital money because the plan is to have three turf fields at the proposed complex.
Councilmen Joel Daves and John Williams voted against the amendment.
County Commission President Connie Hudson approached the City Council two weeks ago about possibly partnering to bring to fruition plans for a proposed soccer complex near the intersection of interstates 10 and 65.
The idea of helping to fund the complex, which would include 10 tournament soccer fields with a championship field gained traction with councilors, who believed it could be an economic development engine.
Councilman Fred Richardson said he supports the project and would give it between $1.5 and $2 million because he believes it would make money for the city.
“Once they open it up we’ll start making money,” Richardson said.
While the money could come out of a proposed $3 million in the capital fund reserved for park improvements, Richardson said the money to support the project could come out of other areas in Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed budget.
“We have a strategic plan fund, a capital fund and convention center fund,” Richardson said. “We can take if from anywhere we want to take it from.”
In a letter delivered to councilors and Stimpson on Friday, Aug. 29 earlier this summer, Hudson wrote that Neel-Schafer Engineering would complete a report on cost estimates for the project by Nov. 10.
Some councilors said while they support the project, it might be a good idea to find out the estimated cost of it before committing money from the fiscal year 2015 budget.
Councilman Levon Manzie called the project a “win-win” and said feedback has been positive, but added that the costs are unknown. He said the money for support of the project would not necessarily need to come from parks money.
Councilman Joel Daves said while he supports the project and can see its benefits, he’s not ready to pull the trigger on funding until more is know about the costs associated with it.
“It’s too early to commit funds to the project without knowing more about it,” Daves said. “It doesn’t have to be decided now. We can address it after we pass the budget.”
Richardson disagreed, saying that while he hopes a decision to fund the project doesn’t get political, he doesn’t hold out much hope that Stimpson would put such a proposal on a future council agenda, after the proposed budget is approved.
“Once the budget is approved all we can hope for is that the mayor will put it on the agenda,” Richardson said. “The mayor has not shown a willingness to support the project. The council is going to have to do what it has to do.”
Stimpson warned councilors against rushing to fund the soccer complex before more is known about it. He added that the city should focus on its needs, with improvements of parks that already exist and not its wants.
“Everyone wants a Mercedes, but do you need a Mercedes when your house is falling down,” he asked, during last week’s council meeting. “I would question the need for the council to even ask for it.”
Councilman John Williams said he would like the council to wait and think about it, before making a decision to spend money on the project. He said he thinks it will be successful, but would also like to prioritize city park needs before making a commitment to it.
“My feelings are much like the mayor’s,” he said. “We have a lot of thinking to do before we enter into agreements.”
Williams said Hudson should’ve taken the issue up with Stimpson and not come to the council.
In an email on Monday, Hudson wrote that she did inform Stimpson of the project, shortly after he took office. She said she also made a partnership request, during that initial meeting.
“While the mayor did not outright refuse support, I did not get a sense, in that initial or a subsequent meeting that (he) supported such a project partnership,” she wrote. “My recent letter to the City Council requested FY 2015 budgetary consideration for project assistance.”
The project includes 10 tournament-sized fields, seven of which will be grass and three of which will be turf, on a total of 200 acres of land, Hudson wrote to councilors. Subsequent phases of the project will also include an 80-acre natural habitat and walking trail, certified for cross-country running. The project would also include a natatorium with a competitive swimming pool, a leisure recreational pool, an outdoor water park with splash pads, a lazy river and other aquatic features, as well as ample picnic and playground areas.
“This complex will be a tremendous asset for the Mobile area in providing long-awaited recreational venues for our citizens and also allow the city and county of Mobile to be a major player in competing for sports tourism events, with their associated revenue benefits,” Hudson wrote in a letter to councilors.
In an email Monday, Hudson said there are currently no plans in place to reduce the number of soccer fields to make way for more equipment related to the aquatic center. She added that the aquatic center is still “conceptual in nature.”
The project would include a $1.6 million widening of Halls Mill Road, which the county would fund through its Pay-As-You-Go road program. The program, which would fund a total of $66 million in road funding, has to be passed through a Nov. 4 referendum.
Meaning, the $1.6 million widening of Halls Mill Road could be approved, before the final cost estimates for the soccer complex are reported. Hudson said in such a case, the allocation could go toward another road project.
The county is currently sitting on a $3.1 million option to buy the tract of land for the proposed complex.