Despite four years of work and $500,000 spent, Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson’s plan for a 10-field, tournament-ready soccer complex appears to have flatlined after failing to gain the support of her fellow two commissioners.
For almost two years, the complex has been slated for a 200-acre piece of property at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 65 — a project estimated to cost anywhere from $20 million at its base level to $40 million with features including a water park and walking trails.It’s seen staunch opposition from Commission President Jerry Carl, but Hudson has found support from District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood on nearly a dozen previous votes to fund environmental and financial studies as well as engineering and architectural work.
Despite that, when it came time to drop the hammer at the commission’s June 27 meeting, Ludgood said she saw the value in the proposal, but could not support it using money from the county’s general fund.
“In deciding how to vote, I asked myself this question: ‘Is this the most critical need facing the county, such that I would feel compelled to borrow $20 million?’ The answer is no,” Ludgood said.
Plans for the project have been kicked around since 2014, but it was late last month before any information was released on how the county would pay for it.
At the time, the county was voting to purchase the $3.1 million property that would house the complex, but on the day of the decision, Hudson tied the land purchase to a proposal to borrow the $20 million needed to fund the project’s first phase.
The money would have been paid back using revenues from the county’s 2 percent lodging tax, but the plan received mixed responses from hoteliers, with 60 percent of the hotel owners in the Mobile Area Lodging Association (MALA) opposing the plan. The other 40 percent and a handful of hotel owners who aren’t MALA members supported Hudson’s funding plan.
However, Ludgood ultimately said the county would have nowhere to pull money from to repay that long-term debt other than the general fund. She described the project as necessary and worthwhile, but “not one the county can be expected to fund solely.”“Individuals and soccer families have told us of the thousands of dollars they spend each year traveling all over the country with their children, and I understand their frustration, but most persuasive for me are the voices not heard in our meetings and that didn’t fill up my inbox,” Ludgood said. “It’s the voices of the children in Mobile County who have no place to play, or if there’s something close by, it’s in a state of disrepair or there’s no supervision. I grew up in one of those communities, and it is not much better today than it was then.”
Proponents of the complex, including Mobile City Councilwoman Bess Rich, said improving the capabilities and capacity of local youth soccer clubs could serve those very children. Others referenced what police have described as a growing trend of teen violence Mobile — suggesting that increased access to soccer programs could be a way to “keep those kids off the streets.”
Hudson said she respected Ludgood’s decision, but added she and many others were “certainly disappointed in the lack of support,” especially in light of “bedroom communities” along the Eastern Shore building and expanding similar facilities.
“If not now, when?” Hudson asked. “The community has been waiting two decades for this project to come to fruition, and the need just continues to grow. If we’re going to be stagnant and all these other communities are progressing, then it’s to our own detriment.”
Hudson said she “had no idea” what the vote would be prior to Monday’s meeting. In the weeks since the county last discussed the project, Ludgood has kept tight-lipped about how she might cast her vote, but on Monday said it was a decision she made over time.
“I wish I had known earlier, I guess — a couple of years ago, but, you know,” Hudson said. “I think it’s really sad. After four years of work, hundreds of hours and a substantial amount of money, I was under the impression we would continue forward.”
Ludgood said, “by this time, I fully expected BP funds to be a viable funding option,” adding that “there are no other investors,” with the exception of the $1.5 million the Mobile City Council had allocated to help purchase the property.
As she has before, Hudson claimed to have seen some interest from private investors but said it would be difficult to obtain any support until the county commits to the project.
At the meeting, parents, coaches and young people involved in Mobile’s soccer community showed up to show support for moving forward on the complex. Invoking those supporters, Hudson asked, “How long does this community have to wait to be able to have these type of resources?”
Ludgood, however, seemed more concerned with neighborhoods still facing critical needs.
“In the communities I represent, jobs trump this,” she said. “When you start talking about borrowing $20 million, that’s a lot of money. We have a cap on how much we can borrow, so if we have opportunities for economic development or if some entity is going to come into the county creating jobs, I wouldn’t want us so tapped out, to where we couldn’t take advantage of our borrowing capacity to participate in that.”
Carl, who was out of town and not present at the meeting, told Lagniappe his position on the proposed complex hasn’t changed. Carl has been vocally critical of Hudson’s plan since it was unveiled, but did commend her on the hard work she put into the effort.“Now it’s time the commission and the city come together and put a plan in place that makes sense,” Carl said via text. “I have a plan already put together that I will introduce at the next commission meeting. I just hope we all can commit and come together ‘as one’ like [Hudson] did on this project.”
Though he didn’t discuss many details, Carl said his plan would offer 10 new fields to the tune of roughly $8 million. Previously, Carl had suggested an alternative to Hudson’s proposed location in his own district but failed to gain the necessary support for it.
Though Hudson told members of the media she wasn’t sure what the next move would be regarding her proposal, she added that she “doesn’t give up easy.”
“The need is here,” she said. “My job is to help the community as best I can in meeting the needs, and it’s not going away. So I’m going to do what I can.”
Hudson did say she didn’t think scaling down the project would be a fix-all because any facility that could accommodate sports tourism would require “infrastructure, underground drainage, roads, concession stands, restrooms,” and wouldn’t leave much cost to cut.
In one of the studies commissioned ahead of this project, a 30-field deficit was identified based on the number of available fields and active soccer players in the area — a figure Hudson cited when asked about the possibility of scaling down her plan.
“Yes, it probably could be done, but will it meet the need? Will it bring in tournaments, if that’s the other part of the equation?,” Hudson said. “We want to be able to provide amenities for our own citizens, be we also want to be able to attract tournaments from out of our area and our region.”
On Monday, Ludgood and Hudson did authorize a request for a 90-day extension on the option to purchase the 200-acre property that would house the complex. The request was made on the advice of the county’s attorney, though there’s still no word on whether the property owners are willing to grant what would be the county’s fourth extension.