After retooling her approach, Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson is once again pushing for a multi-field soccer complex to serve a burgeoning community that supports, plays and wants to develop “the beautiful game” locally.
Hudson unveiled a new plan to develop what will ultimately be a 10-field soccer complex at the corridor of interstates 10 and 65 during an April 19 commission work session. If approved, it would be located on the same site selected in a previous plan Hudson pushed for four years.
The county spent close to half a million dollars performing environmental and economic evaluations of the proposal before the idea was voted down in 2016 over concerns that borrowing the $20 million needed to fund its construction it would put a burden on taxpayers.
The new proposal is expected to have a smaller price tag by downscaling some of the planned amenities and footprint, but Hudson said it would still have state-of-the-art fields that would support local youth programs and help bring in sports tourism dollars.
“When it’s finished and all is completed it will have the same layout with some minor modifications to the entrance roads, but we will not be purchasing the property that was originally planned for the future development of a water park and a natatorium,” she said.
According to Hudson, the project would be completed in three phases, and at least the first of those would be paid for from Hudson’s own discretionary funding for capital improvement projects. Including a $1.3 million property purchase, phase 1 is expected to cost $3.7 million.
It includes two tournament fields, at least one of which would be lighted initially, and two practice fields. It would not include concession and restroom areas outlined in her original plan, but Hudson said water and sewer lines would be added so portable restrooms could be used.
On Tuesday, the Commission will consider spending the initial $1.3 million dollars needed to purchase 60 acres near Lees Lane and Halls Mill Road for the first phase of the project, though the agreement includes an option to buy 30 additional acres needed for later phases.
Hudson’s price does not include the cost of road improvements slated for Lees Lane and Halls Mill Road because those projects were already funded in previous rounds of the county’s “Pay As You Go” program that is routinely used to finance road and bridge projects.
If approved, construction on the first phase could start as early as late 2018, and Hudson says she’s already set aside the funding need for those initial developments.
She also said construction and environmental permits from the first iteration, which proved quite difficult to obtain, would all still be valid or able to be extended to complete this project.
As for total the cost, Hudson said that was still unclear at the moment because detailed plans for the later phases are still being developed. However, she did say a price estimate was being put together so the county could submit later phases for possible RESTORE Act funding.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue this and get it all completed, but I don’t have an exact timeline right now,” she said. “I think it will be as the money becomes available, and there’s always the hope that the city will step up and assist us as well.”
The Mobile City Council previously pledged $1.5 million to help purchase the property at the interstate corridor, but so far, no councilors, nor Mayor Sandy Stimpson have publicly addressed Hudson’s latest attempt to construct a soccer facility in Mobile.
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood supported many expenditures to evaluate the project when it was first proposed, but she ultimately voted it down, saying she couldn’t support a project of that scale that would pull money from the county’s general fund.
At the time, the county was still locked in a legal battle with District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office over salaries for local prosecutors and a number of other county employees were vocalizing concerns about the need for employee raises, as well.
With those concerns alleviated, Ludgood called Hudson’s new plan “a masterful compromise.”
Even Hudson’s biggest opponent from her previous attempt, Commissioner Jerry Carl, was supportive and complimentary of the way she retooled the proposal to reduce its cost and scope.
“I’m proud we’ve brought it down to where it’s controllable and we can grow with it, and I appreciate you for doing that,” he told Hudson. “I know this has been a project that’s near and dear to you. We’ve fought over it for the last four years, and I don’t want to fight anymore.”
Outside of the cost, one of the biggest concerns for Carl in previous years has been what obligations the county would have in maintaining and operating a soccer complex once it was built, but Hudson said the Mobile United Football Club has already agreed to take on that role.
She also said that other organizations in the local soccer community would have a “seat at the table” as the development moves forward, including AFC Mobile — a local ametur elite team playing in the fourth tier of the United States Soccer Federation Pyramid.
Hudson said AFC Mobile had pledged to help find other outside grants, adding “the more money we find, the sooner we can get it done.” Sean Landry, one of the team’s co-owners, told Lagniappe, Mobile’s soccer enthusiasts “deserve a complex like this.”
“I think, personally, it will pay dividends down the road, not only financially but also as an investment in thousands of youth soccer players throughout the county,” he said.
Danny Corte, Executive Director of the Mobile Sports Authority, said the complex, when completed, would put Mobile in contention with cities like Foley, Daphne and Orange Beach that have already developed their own tournament-level complexes.
Though some of the facilities are larger and have been operating for years, he said, including the fields at the city of Mobile’s Herndon Sage Park, there would be eight fields in a relatively close proximity after the first phase alone.
“It’s going to be a big boost for sports tourism in Mobile and throughout the county,” he said. “I’m tired of flipping on the TV and seeing tournaments in Foley. Nothing against them, but it’s refreshing to see this is something the commission still wants to pursue.”
Asked about the six-year journey that led to Thursday’s proposal, Hudson said pursuing a county soccer complex had indeed become a passion project for her because she’s worked with recreational and semi-pro soccer teams and organizers and understand the need.
“I hear all the time from the soccer community that we don’t have the facilities here in Mobile County, but yet we still have the clubs,” she said. “The sport is growing and has continued to grow in spite of the fact we haven’t had adequate facilities for an area this size.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Mobile County Commission’s next meeting would be on Monday, April 23. Due to a scheduling change, it will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 24.