What will become of Mobile’s Mardi Gras without the Civic Center? It’s more and more a topic of conversation these days, as Mayor Sandy Stimpson has said he wants to see the beat-up, money-burning edifice shuttered by mid-April of next year.
With the Civic Center currently serving as the palace where 15 mystic societies coronate their kings and queens during their annual throwdowns, some are worried about where said throwdowns will take place in the future. A task force of nine leaders in Mobile’s Mardi Gras scene expressed that last week when they presented a study to the mayor’s office detailing possible scheduling conflicts if their organization’s balls are forced to move to the Mobile Convention Center. They also outlined other concerns ranging from rerouting parades to the rising costs of changing venues.
The task force capped things off by pointing to a study declaring the direct economic impact of Mardi Gras as $252 million last year, and $453.5 million in indirect impact in Mobile and Baldwin for 2014. They peg tax revenue from Mardi Gras at $20.4 million for our two favorite counties as well. Combined with the number of hotel nights it fills, it’s pretty obvious there’s lots of money in those plastic beads and MoonPies.
For his part, the mayor has made it clear it’s time for something to be done with the Civic Center, even as he acknowledges the need to accommodate Mardi Gras. The CC looks like a dirty old spaceship from a redneck planet and it’s bleeding money by the day. Combined with the fact renovations would come with millions in ADA compliance costs, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for saving the 50-year-old facility from the wrecking ball.
To its credit, the task force doesn’t seem opposed to the idea of a new facility being built, but the report does point out a number of obstacles they face if the CC is closed. The study shows how much it will cost mystic societies if such seemingly small things as how much it costs to buy outside catering services at the Convention Center versus the Civic Center are taken into account. Some large organizations could find the costs prohibitive, they say.
At this point, though, what is obvious is things are going to have to change. It’s just a matter of making them change in a way that is positive for our annual debauchery.
I’m sure there are lots of people who feel there’s an elite quality to Mardi Gras and the members of its mystic societies, and the people involved should just dig a little deeper in their already very deep pockets and take care of the issues themselves. But while it’s true plenty of Mobile’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens belong to Mardi Gras societies — the mayor himself is in one — there are far more “regular Joes” who penny pinch all year for that two-hour ride through the streets.
I’ve run across plenty of people who have a bitter take on Mardi Gras as if it is the royalty tossing out worthless trinkets to the rabble in the streets. But the vast majority of Mobilians look at it as good fun and an opportunity to vomit in public. I’m not a society member, but I still love going down and watching the show each year.
And there is no arguing Mardi Gras brings people into town in droves — far more than any of our other events combined. I have no idea whether the MG task force’s economic impact numbers are totally correct, but there’s no doubt Mardi Gras is an economic driver.
Mystic societies are obviously nervous about what a Civic Center-less future will look like, but it’s going to take some give and take to get the city in a better financial situation — one that should take Mardi Gras into full account. Stimpson has been working to find a public-private solution to the Civic Center problem, but nothing is on the table yet. A few different ideas have been floated, and all involve a private developer coming in and finding a better use for the prime real estate beneath the Civic Center.
To me, and I’m sure to most everyone, the best solution is finding someone willing to include an arena or theater of some kind in their plans that could host Mardi Gras balls and perhaps even get Mobile back into the concert business. Maybe with the destruction of the Civic Center, the memories of stealing money from Eddie Van Halen and countless other musicians will finally go away and we can get back to being a place where big acts play.
Once the CC is gone, Mobile will really be left with no arena built for hosting bigger shows — including those Mardi Gras tableaux. (The Mitchell Center could probably do some of that, but it seems that building is set up more for athletic events.)
Could we end up with a public-private situation that would make everyone happy? We have to hope so. The city isn’t in the position to rip the CC down and build a spanking new arena just for Mardi Gras balls, but the right developer might be able to include that in a bigger plan.
In the meantime the Mardi Gras societies are going to have to make the best of the situation and find ways to uphold traditions that existed long before the Civic Center became the place to gator. I know it’s going to seem strange going to balls any place other than that run-down spaceship — we’ll all miss the high school hallway feel. Hopefully it’s all just a temporary measure.
The city definitely needs a good solution for the Mardi Gras societies, whether it’s part of the Civic Center property redevelopment or not. It makes the most sense to put something in the same location and to give the Mardi Gras societies a voice in what would serve their interests as well.
City interests must take first priority, but if things are handled correctly, the societies could end up with a building far better suited to carrying on the next 50 years of Mobile’s big party.