One night several years ago I was sitting downtown outside one of my favorite establishments, Serda’s Coffee, on Royal Street near its nexus with Dauphin Street. At Serda’s I can get the trifecta of good food and drinks (sometimes I must admit those drinks are of the alcoholic variety), free Wi-Fi, and a nice ambience. Just as important, though, I get an incredible front-row seat to something that has for some time been thriving and growing: the beauty, attraction and vitality of downtown Mobile.
As I was on my laptop at my sidewalk table attempting to be productive, I could not help but notice the steady stream of African-American females going to and fro on the sidewalks downtown, many arrayed in some combination of the colors pink and green. I instantly recognized the colors as being those of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
As many of these ladies walked by, I saw them constantly looking up, staring and pointing. I didn’t think much of it until I heard one of them comment, “How were they able to light these buildings pink and green to match our sorority colors? It’s so beautiful!” The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, an organization with more than 283,000 members, had come to town for a convention and the city of Mobile rolled out the red carpet. During their stay, the night sky was ablaze with pink and green.
It’s something many Mobilians now take for granted — a nightly lit-up downtown skyline. Granted, it’s not as luminous as the skylines of New York City or Las Vegas, but Mobile’s has a humble beauty and brilliance that is quite appealing.
During this year’s carnival season, those coming downtown to catch a parade, or passing through on I-10 or I-65, have been greeted after dark by the RSA Building, the Renaissance Hotel, the Trustmark Bank building and the Van Antwerp Building serving as a coordinated beacon to let everyone know it’s Mardi Gras time. The colors glowing and changing — in sync — on each building have been absolutely stunning to see!
Anyone from Mobile who is over the age of 30 knows this has not always been the case. Downtown was not a place people wished to be at night. You came for a purpose and then you left — often quickly.
The organization Main Street Mobile has put out a new video, “25 Years of Main Street Mobile,” in which the word used to describe downtown Mobile in 1990 was “decrepitude.” In 2016, however, the words “dynamic,” “vibrant,” “inviting” and “growing” are more fitting. Once rendered almost pulse-less, the heart of Mobile is now alive and beating in a way that’s almost astounding.
There are many to thank locally for the incredible renaissance taking place downtown, but we can’t overlook a state entity that has played a huge part as well: the Retirement Systems of Alabama.
Mobile has benefited from a purposeful intent on the part of RSA to grow the urban centers of Alabama’s largest cities. It’s part of an overall strategy of creating value in the state through investment in world-class hotels — such as the Battle House in downtown Mobile, the Marriott Grand in Point Clear, the Renaissance Ross Bridge in Hoover, the Renaissance Montgomery — and golf courses for which Alabama has become known all over the world.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, 26 different golf courses spread out across 11 locations in the state, has become a tourism boon for Alabama as golfers from around the nation and globe putt, dine and sleep their way across our state. RSA’s novel strategy of consistently investing a portion of its money in the growth and advancement of Alabama has paid huge dividends.
Starting from very humble beginnings — around $500 million in 1973 — and growing to around $38 billion today, RSA is the 115th largest pension fund in the world. The person who has played a major part in that phenomenal growth is RSA President David Bonner. I’d venture to say the two men who’ve done the most to promote and advance the Alabama name, the Alabama brand are Bonner and Nick Saban.
I don’t think I need to say how Saban has done that, but Bonner’s role may be a bit lesser known, even though he’s been at it much longer. His desire, his vision to make Alabama a place where people actually want to come and visit, play, work, invest and live has helped transform this state.
It’s about more than just putting shiny lights on buildings. It’s been about implementing a belief that Alabama can change its unfortunate negative image; it can build a better brand. Bonner and RSA’s investment philosophy have reflected that vision and Alabama is a hell of a lot better for it.
Unfortunately, now there’s a movement afoot to derail what RSA has been trying to do over the last few decades. Despite having a 25-year investment return rate of around 8 percent, despite the fact that since 1990 RSA’s investment in the state of Alabama has generated more than $14 billion in payroll earnings and led to the creation of more than 280,000 jobs in the state, despite tourism dollars being spent in Alabama now topping
$1 billion dollars per year, there are voices in the state Legislature — and vested outside interests — calling for changes in how the RSA is run.
We all know that old saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Well, RSA isn’t broke, either figuratively or literally. If there’s any tweaking that needs to be done, allow those who have guided it successfully for these past decades to do so. Please resist the voices that call for wholesale change and a playbook rewrite.
Sometimes you have to know when to say thanks, but no thanks. Now is that time.