Making a queasy ride to the airport in Nashville last week after a newspaper convention that offered way too much fun in a city with far too many great musical options for a guy who had to get up way too early, I got the kind of perspective you really have to get out of town to acquire.
In particular I was struck by how it only took 10 minutes to get from downtown to the airport. Nice. Even if Bear Bryant was rising from the dead in the middle of the Iron Bowl and had every citizen glued to the tube you still couldn’t make it from downtown to Mobile’s airport in anything like that kind of time.
I suppose that perspective – that our airport really isn’t in the right place – is probably pretty worthless because it’s not moving. But still it often is nice to get out of town to see how it works elsewhere.
That’s probably the experience the gaggle of business negotiators who headed over to England for the Farnborough Air Show last week are having. The experience probably has some thinking our traffic problems would disappear if we started driving on the left side of the road while eating fish and chips. Others may even be getting really big ideas.
I know our resident big idea guy, City Councilman Fred “MoonPie” Richardson, has posted on his Facebook page about Mobile’s need to attract or build something that makes a statement. He held up London’s famed clock tower “Big Ben” as an example of something that would draw tourists.
So maybe he can use his discretionary funds to start on “Big Fred” sometime soon instead of burning the money on his next international junket or cleaning ditches.
Despite the silliness of the things he says, Richardson does have a good point buried under the clown shoes and confetti. Mobile needs more draws to differentiate us from the other mid-sized cities all fighting for those almighty tourist dollars, or even just to make us memorable as they whiz by on I-10.
Those who come back from the Farnborough junket may be bursting with ideas about bringing this or that to our city to make it hip, cool and ready to grab the still-new millennium by the scruff of the neck and tell it Mobile has arrived. But before we start commissioning giant arches, huge clocks or a 50-foot statue of Dale Earnhardt, it’d be best to take stock of what we already have ready to be harnessed.
One place I’ve long thought we’re missing the pirate boat is in honoring the biggest entertainer who’s ever come from Mobile — Killer Beaz. No, wait, I mean Jimmy Buffett! That’s the guy.
By any measure Buffett is the most successful entertainer/businessman to ever call the Azalea City home. But if you were John Q. Parrothead tourist you’d never know it. In fact almost nobody thinks of Mobile when they think of Jimmy. Key West grabbed that and they get the tourists who travel there just to walk a block in Jimmy’s flip-flops.
Jimmy’s fan base is huge and rabid. I firmly believe if they had a chance to hop off I-10 and drive down The Jimmy Buffett Causeway, many would. A little bit of signage would be the biggest cost I can think of, and suddenly maybe more people come through the Bankhead Tunnel each day.
On top of everything else the guy really ought to be honored by his hometown for once. There appears to have been a rather cool relationship between Mobile and Buffett over the years, but it’s hard to blame him at this point. He truly doesn’t get much of his music played here. We’ll hand the keys to the city to anyone from Auburn or Alabama who makes three tackles in one game, but we can’t get it together to honor an entertainer known worldwide.
It may also have escaped city leaders that Buffett has business ventures both to the east and west of Mobile, but not in the city. I’m not saying he doesn’t feel welcome, but maybe he doesn’t.
Anyone can see honoring Buffett in such a significant fashion might turn on the welcome light to his millions of fans. Maybe he’d even come out and perform a concert on the lawn at Battleship Park. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes this idea would require some coordination between Spanish Fort, Mobile and the state, but it’s not complicated.
Speaking of the battleship, we currently have a world-renowned artist clamoring to work his magic on the USS Alabama, with a light show that would definitely be more eye-catching, memorable and dare I say hip than anything we’ve seen here before. Xavier de Richemont wants to turn our coolest landmark into a jaw-dropping kaleidoscope of visual art that would be memorable to anyone passing through.
He’s just turned the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio into his canvas for a stunning display that will last for a decade, transforming the beautiful cathedral into an event every night. He’s ready to do the same here, but so far it hasn’t come together, jeopardizing what could be a huge winner for the area.
It could be our “Big Fred” without the Fred.
Imagine such a light show happening on Jimmy Buffett Causeway, and there’s no doubt the fun and energy generated would benefit not only the restaurants along the causeway, but the battleship itself and the downtown just a mile or two away. We’d be fools to let this ship sail.
A couple of other fun ideas come to mind. The first is why not rename some of the streets inside the Hank Aaron Loop after Mobile’s hall of fame baseball stars. We proudly claim more HOFers than just about any city.
Honoring them by renaming a cross streets could possibly make things a big more fun for baseball buffs interested in our history on the diamond.
Another thing hard for me to understand is why we’ve allowed our Azalea City moniker to be traded for Port City. Yes, yes, we want business. That’s clear. But a city carrying images of beautiful flowers versus hulking ships and cranes certainly seems more likely to attract the elusive tourists.
Revitalize the Azalea Trail. Plant more of our signature flowers until we’re up to our armpits in pollen during spring. And take back our nickname while we’re at it. Plenty of cities have two nicknames, so use them both.
But if we can’t manage any of that, perhaps we can put a clock on the empty cruise ship terminal and wait for the money to roll in.