Mobile County’s plan to build an estimated $40 million soccer and aquatic complex is teetering between moving forward and being shelved for good, and with a final vote expected in the next three weeks, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood continues to hold all the cards.
The Mobile County Commission is fast approaching its July 5 deadline to exercise a $3.1 million agreement to purchase 200 acres along Halls Mill Road selected to house the planned facility.While the agreement was inked in 2014, the project has been significantly delayed in the county’s planning and permitting process. Just last month the final hurdle seemed to be cleared after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a construction permit for the project, more than a year after the county applied for it.
Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the purchase May 23, but the vote was delayed when Commissioner Connie Hudson offered the first public details on how the project she personally spearheaded might be funded — suggesting a proposal to fund the facility’s construction be considered along with the vote to purchase the property.
“It may boil down to, either we do this or we don’t, but nobody is going to hand us $20 million to do this project,” Hudson said. “We’re going to have to have some skin in the game.”
While Hudson has championed the soccer facility at its proposed location, the project has faced opposition from Commission President Jerry Carl, who originally argued for a smaller-scale soccer complex at a location in his own district.
That gridlock has made Ludgood the second vote in a series of decisions that have moved the project forward. Hudson said she was “operating on an assumption that the support would be there” during this week’s vote, though she never mentioned Ludgood specifically.
Meanwhile, Ludgood declined to offer her own opinion, saying she would be reviewing Hudson’s funding proposal. Delaying the vote means the commission will take up the issue, along with Hudson’s funding proposal, at one of its next two meetings.
However, with the county’s third $10,000 extension on the agreement to purchase the property set to expire July 5, the clock is ticking.
Unexpected funding proposal delays land purchase
Carl told Lagniappe he wasn’t expecting any information on the project’s funding to come up during the discussion of the $3.1 million land purchase May 23 and didn’t believe Ludgood was either.
Just last month, County Attorney Jay Ross said there were still efforts to recruit private partners to help fund the soccer complex. In late 2015, Hudson herself said, “we have some investors who are interested, but we can’t do anything to move forward until we purchase the property.”
Though Hudson maintains that private partnerships remain part of the plan to fund later phases of the proposed complex, the proposal from her office this week didn’t include any. It would instead borrow $20.7 million for “Phase 1” of the project, which will include 10 lighted soccer fields, spectator seating, parking facilities, road improvements and several other amenities.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to go out and look for private partners, particularly as we’re looking at Phase II and Phase III — the water park and natatorium,” Hudson said. “I think it’s very possible that once investors see the county is willing to put forward the effort and the money to do this project, those would come online and we would see support in that respect.”
Though it doesn’t specify an exact amount that would be borrowed, Hudson’s plan would redirect $1 million in lodging tax revenues to “service debt on a 20- to 30-year bond.”
The county assesses a 2 percent lodging tax, which brings in roughly $2.3 million per year including $500,000 that has historically gone to the county’s general fund operations. Hudson said those funds, coupled with another $500,000 of unearmarked lodging tax proceeds, could cover annual payments on a loan for the project.
According to Hudson, her funding proposal wouldn’t take money from special events that also receive lodging revenues. She also said it wouldn’t affect the general fund, but only if projected increases in other revenues sources are borne out at the end of the fiscal year.“The half a million coming out of the general fund would be replaced by our increase in sales tax revenue,” Hudson said. “We’re seeing a trend of increases there, and we’re projecting about a 4 percent positive variance in that growth.”
While Hudson is confident local hotel operators would be “the beneficiaries” of a new sports complex in Mobile, those in the industry are not sold. Hudson already proposed a 2 percent increase in the lodging tax to fund this project, which was unanimously rejected by the Mobile Area Lodging Association back in 2014.
MALA President Kent Blackinton said no input was sought from local hoteliers in the financing option Hudson unveiled this week. When asked if the industry was supportive of her proposal, Hudson said “I don’t know. I doubt it.”
“We got wind that some of this was happening, and we took a vote in May asking if the association would support a certain percentage of lodging tax revenues that were equal to the marketing fund going to the soccer complex,” Blackinton said. “The association voted ‘no.’”
The marketing fund the original purpose of the tax hike hoteliers self-imposed in the early 2000s to fund efforts aimed at attracting conventions and other events to Mobile County. Today, though, MALA claims only about $280,000 from the $2.3 million the lodging tax generates goes toward marketing efforts every year — something he says “is not what the original intent was.”
Though there hasn’t been a vote among MALA’s members, the only proposal to fund the soccer complex so far would redirect four times more funding than the measure hoteliers have already voted down. Blackinton told Lagniappe he “guaranteed” MALA wouldn’t support Hudson’s $1 million proposal, though the commission has full control over those revenues.
“I just wish we had a voice,” Blackinton said. “I wish they would come and talk to us. We reach out, but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere.”
While no dates are set, both parties said there were meetings to discuss the proceeds from lodging taxes in the future. Hudson said she’s hopeful the hoteliers will come around.
“The hoteliers were opposed to increasing the lodging tax. I understand the fears there about putting the rates so high, but this is putting a portion of what already exists toward debt service,” she said. “I would hope that once they take a look at this, they’ll be on board.”
After the meeting May 23, Carl said he wasn’t surprised at the attempt to borrow money for the soccer complex, which he claims is something he’s known would happen “from the very beginning.”
“I’ve said they were going to borrow that money because there’s no other way to pay for it,” Carl said. “We’re going to borrow ourselves into more and more debt. It’s the only place for it to come from.”
Though Ludgood has given no hints about her impression of the last-minute funding proposal, Carl was quick to tell Hudson, “You already know what my vote is going to be.”
Future expenses and projected revenue
This time last year, Sports Facilities Advisory revealed the results of a marketability study for which the county paid $48,000. According to the study, the proposed complex is projected to have an economic impact of $6.1 million in its first year, which could grow to $11 million after five years in operation.
Those figures were based on up to 15 tournaments being held at the facility in a year — events SFA claims bring in multiple family members for each of the thousands of children that participate in traveling tournaments for soccer and other sports like lacrosse.
“This will provide economic development benefits in terms of revenues to our community that we can turn around and put in the county coffers for things like future raises for our employees,” Hudson said. “You can’t be so short-focused that you don’t see the big picture.”
To the contrary, though, Carl told Lagniappe he’s skeptical of the “profits” he keeps seeing associated with this project, especially considering the numbers have come from “a firm [the county] paid to put those numbers together.”
When the results of the marketability study were released in May 2015, Carl raised similar concerns about how the economic impact would stack up against the long-term costs of operating the facility. At the time, SFA Vice President Evan Eleff said expenditures would likely outweigh direct revenues in the first years of operation, though he said the economic impact should offset any operational losses.A year later, Carl said he still has unanswered questions about costs that will arise long after construction is completed. He said the facility must be maintained and the events organized, scheduled and managed, and even those lobbying for the park have said it would take at least one full-time employee just to recruit tournaments to this area.
“They can talk about profits all they want to, but there’s no management plan put together,” Carl said. “Who’s going to manage this thing? Is it the city? Is it the county? Is it a board?”
Mobile County Public Affairs Officer Nancy Johnson said this week no decision has been made on how the facility will be managed when and if it’s constructed.
Hudson, however, has previously said the county “doesn’t have the personnel or the experience to manage something like this.” She went on to say the county would “have to reach outside” for the facility’s maintenance and operations.
SFA has a sister organization known as Sports Facilities Management that, as its name suggests, manages many of the facilities for which SFA conducts studies, charging monthly fees ranging from $9,000 to $30,000.
In April 2015, Hudson told Lagniappe the county had no plans to partner with SFM, though she also didn’t rule out the possibility.
Soccer community, county employees grow impatient
While there have been talks about a county soccer facility for years, the scale of those plans expanded in 2013 to focus on a larger complex that could tap into the sports tourism industry.
Though more than 30 locations were considered, the county ultimately settled on a site at the corridor of Interstate 65 proposed by Hudson in 2013. Since then commissioners have spent just under $500,000 evaluating the economic and environmental impacts of the proposed facility.During the May 23 meeting, dozens of county employees, public officials and soccer enthusiasts showed up to voice support for or opposition to the complex as planned. One was Mobile City Councilwoman Bess Rich, who is one of a majority of councilors who have continued to support a $1.5 million allocation from the city’s recreation budget to help the county purchase the land for what she called a “very vital project.”
“Even smaller cities have had the foresight to build these complexes for their citizens,” Rich said. “I’m sure Daphne, Gulfport, Foley, Pensacola and Gulf Shores have greatly benefited by our economic oversight and have achieved the goal of having our children travel to them for their tournaments.”
Like Rich, Chad Harrelson of the Mobile United Football Club and Danny Corte, director of the Mobile Sports Authority, said it would improve the quality of life in Mobile and attract new families looking for recreational opportunities for their children. Others — including dozens of Mobile County employees — said they don’t oppose soccer, yet don’t feel the county needs to prioritize a $20 million project over employees and retirees still struggling to meet rising health care costs.
“[Bess Rich] invoked Daphne, Fairhope, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, but she needs to look at their pay scales because all of those agencies pay their employees more than what you all pay your employees,” Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver said. “Those city and county leaders had the foresight to jump on this soccer wagon years ago when it was hot. This is too much and it’s too late.”
Oliver and others representing the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association said they’d oppose any project that required borrowing money. When asked about those concerns, Hudson said issues of employee raises and capital projects were “apples and oranges.”
In the past two years, the commission has given employees a 7.5 percent salary increase and an additional $1,500 in bonuses per employee. While Hudson said she hopes that continues, she added that neither borrowed capital funding nor lodging tax revenues could pay for those types of personnel costs.
“What I’m proposing would take debt service from a lodging tax fund, which would never be used to pay employees’ raises,” she said. “Some just think we should not do economic development at all, but we’re doing other projects. This one just gets singled out, and it’s a shame because this one actually provides amenities for our citizens.”
Among those speaking in opposition to the proposed plan was Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich, who has been locked in a legal battle with the commission over increased funding for her office since 2012.
In March, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Rich’s favor — a decision that leaves the county on the hook for an additional $3 million per year unless a pending motion to rehear the case proves successful. Rich told commissioners “it is not smart” to borrow money for a soccer complex when they’ll likely be required to pay additional money to her office in the near future.She also told commissioners they have an obligation not only to their employees, but also to local victims of crime.
“Can you assure them that you can pay what you owe to the district attorney’s office and pay this loan without cutting funding to other county offices and without making these county employees suffer?” Rich asked. “If you can’t make that promise, then please do the responsible thing and vote against this proposal for funding the soccer complex.”
In anticipation of the May 23 vote, Lagniappe published several articles detailing the history of that property and the 13 property owners that stand to benefit from the county’s land purchase. The articles are available here.