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Is this ‘Guy’s’ brand really what we want visitors to think Mobile is all about?
I’ll admit I haven’t really thought much about the aging Mobile Civic Center arena over the years. Like everyone else, I’ve been to Mardi Gras balls, seen a few concerts and taken the kids to see dinosaur exhibits and monster truck shows there.
But it’s not a spot I frequent with great regularity, so when Mayor Sandy Stimpson said we needed to raze it because it would cost too much to fix, and it would continue to cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year to maintain for eternity, his plan sounded at first listen to make good fiscal sense. We’d keep the theater and we’d have to figure out the Mardi Gras situation, but other than that this would be a smart move, and we could say so long to at least one of the many municipal albatrosses around our collective neck.
But now that it seems there is a very real possibility it could be demolished for a “glitzy,” new insta-entertainment district, I am starting to think about it a lot and am beginning to believe this would be a monumental mistake taxpayers would be stuck with for decades. Sound familiar?
The most troubling piece of this equation is what is being proposed to replace it. The Cordish Companies, a privately owned group based out of Baltimore, is the last man standing in a redevelopment competition after Stirling Properties pulled out, saying the process had not been fair. According to Stirling’s VP William Barrois, Cordish did not fulfill all of the requirements of the original RFQ (request for qualifications), and they also stated the mayor seemed to clearly favor the Cordish plan.
It does seem very apparent the mayor has been razzle-dazzled by this plan, and I am having a really hard time understanding why. This seems exactly like the “build it and they will come, à la Mike Dow” kind of plan he once campaigned so hard against.
In Cordish’s Live! development proposal, there would be dining and entertainment venues surrounding a large outdoor space where concerts or other events could take place.
Cordish often fills the restaurants with “themed restaurants” or with the eateries of cheeseball chefs like Guy Fieri or chains like Chipotle. So basically we would just be moving Airport Boulevard downtown and putting a grassy field in the middle of it. That just sounds awesome. (Please note the previous sentence is dripping with more sarcasm than the amount of product in Guy Fieri’s hair and E. coli in Chipotle’s burritos combined. And that’s a lot!)
Not only does this plan not really capture the essence of Mobile, it also does not address the Mardi Gras situation at all. Cordish said perhaps the organizations could throw up some nice tents in the outdoor space and utilize the surrounding venues for private parties and such.
So our queens are supposed to drag their ridiculously expensive trains across grass and/or mud on the way to stopping by a “Mardi Gras room” at Guy’s Dive and Taco Joint? I really hope salsa doesn’t stain, Mary/Ann (insert old family name)!
If we are going to utilize an outdoor space, why not throw up tents in Mardi Gras Park or Cathedral Square? But still, with the typical weather we get for Mardi Gras in Mobile, does anyone think this is actually a workable idea? Maybe there is something I haven’t seen yet or some other secret master plan in the works, but if not, I just don’t get it.
I also think we get too caught up in only thinking about how this affects Mardi Gras. There are many more activities going on over at the Civic Center than just the ‘Gras. In addition to the arts groups and dance companies that use the theater, there are cheer and gymnastics competitions as well as volleyball, wrestling and tennis tournaments, not to mention Christian rock concerts and kid-friendly shows, among many other more mundane events, like the kickoff for Mobile County Public School employees that was just held there this week.
Now that I really think about this, it makes me very nervous for a city of our size not to have a venue that can accommodate 5,000 or 6,000 folks. What would we do if USA decided to just not let high school graduations happen at the Mitchell Center anymore? Where are all of the other events the Civic Center is currently hosting going to go? The Saenger can’t handle all of them. I think this could result in some really ugly unintended consequences we aren’t even thinking about yet.
In addition to these obvious problems, the even bigger, more concerning one is that most of the existing Cordish Live! developments are built in much larger cities surrounding Major League Baseball stadiums, arenas or casinos. The Cordish plan probably makes perfect sense for those cities and for fans who want to grab a non-stadium bite to eat or a drink before or after a game that draws in thousands of people. But how does that work here exactly — where there is no anchor or regularly scheduled event?
Even Councilman Fred Richardson who thought the Fourth Street Live! Cordish property in Louisville was impressive commented on how “disappointed” he was when he saw how few people were actually there when he visited. How is that going to be any different here?
Mayor Stimpson has said we would need to double our tourism numbers to make this work. How are we planning to do that exactly?
Kansas City, which subsidized Cordish’s KC Live! concept, across the street from the Sprint Center, has expressed some regret for entering such an agreement with Cordish. Taxpayers ended up footing costly bills for such things as infrastructure upgrades to the roads and sewer system and even a parking garage — this is for a private company’s development, mind you.
The city issued $295 million in bonds to help Cordish develop this property, expecting the newly generated tax revenue to certainly cover the debt service. It didn’t come close. Taxpayers were left on the hook for 70 to 75 percent of the money needed to pay down the debt each year, paying anywhere from $14.9 million in fiscal year 2014 to around $8.5 million in 2015, according to KC media reports. They will be paying for it until at least 2040.
“I don’t think there will be a point at any time in the foreseeable future, probably the next 20 years, where it actually pays for itself,” Kansas City city manager Troy Schulte told the KC Star in February 2015.
I just fear we are well on our way to finding ourselves in a similar predicament if we move forward with the Cordish plan.
And I am not trying to beat up on Cordish — I am sure these properties and even the public-private partnerships make sense in other larger cities and in areas surrounding ballparks which are often in underdeveloped “dead zones.”
But we don’t have a “ghost town” in downtown anymore.
When I drive all the way down Dauphin Street and see our local businesses thriving on any random day or night of the week, it literally gives me chill bumps. Because in the mid-’90s it was still practically a “ghost town” until 10 p.m. most evenings and on weekend days.
It is no longer a “dead zone” because the past two or three decades local stakeholders have invested their blood, sweat, tears, time and money into making our entertainment district into something we are all proud of. And into something that truly represents our music, our food, our culture and who we are as a city. Sorry, Guy Fieri just ain’t Mobile. (Thank God.)
While the Cordish people say these two districts would complement one another, I just don’t see us being able to support two separate entertainment districts.
Think about it. So where is Artwalk going to be every month? In LoDa or Mobile Live! (if that’s our name)? Where is 1065 and SouthSounds and Dauphin Street Vault and BeerFest going to be? Logistically, I don’t see how “both” works as an answer. And I don’t see any of those events wanting to move out of LoDa. So then what do you put in Mobile Live! on those nights? A few folks eating at a Chipotle and Guy’s Pizza Parlor until they finally go out of business. And then what? We are left footing the bill on a very dead Live! ghost town until 2080? That seems to be the most likely scenario.
I would much rather my tax dollars go to either renovating the Civic Center or tearing it down and rebuilding a reasonable, efficient, moderately sized venue that makes sense and could be utilized by our citizens during Mardi Gras and throughout the year and maybe could even attract new events we would all enjoy a helluva lot more than Guy’s grub.
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