After a marathon day of meetings yesterday, officials at the University of South Alabama aren’t any closer to securing a $20 million public contribution for their planned football stadium.
President Tony Waldrop, Athletic Director Joel Erdmann and hundreds of students attended lengthy meetings of the Mobile City Council and Mobile County Commission Tuesday.
The group was seeking $10 million contributions from each of the public entities to help build an on-campus stadium for the Jaguars’ 10-year-old football program. Following the meetings, the council held a subcommittee meeting where the city’s contribution was discussed in more detail.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has pushed for the contribution as part of his larger plan to resolve financial obligations at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the 69-year-old facility where USA has played its football games since 2008.
For the first time last week, members of the City Council saw the results of a 2016 study that concluded there was much work to be done at Ladd. Stimpson has since stated that is is “highly probable it could be rendered unsafe for use in the future.”
Ann Davis, chairwoman of Ladd’s board of directors, noted that Stimpson has made no mention of these structural concerns to the council or Ladd board for nearly two years. Since then, the stadium has hosted dozens of events, including a visit from President Donald Trump.
According to Stimpson, Ladd-Peebles Stadium needs $6 million of deferred maintenance immediately, and if maintained properly, could cost the city more than $33 million over the next 20 years. If the city were to rebuild Ladd from the ground up, he says, it could cost more than $90 million.
“We’ve got a $100 million problem out there,” Stimpson said of Ladd. “Really, USA is bringing $50 to $60 million to the table for a facility that’s going to behoove us as much as them, and I don’t see how we could come up with a deal that could even touch that. By joining with them, we’re eliminating the cost associated with maintaining a very old facility.”
Addressing councilors at Tuesday’s committee meeting, Stimpson said he believes contributing $10 million to USA over the next decade is the city’s best option. However, the council hasn’t made a decision and likely won’t vote on his proposal until July 3 at the earliest.
If approved, the contribution to USA would be paid in yearly installments of $500,000. Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said the contribution would be generated, primarily, from money that would have otherwise gone toward maintenance and capital investments at Ladd-Peebles.
As part of the agreement, the university would also give Mobile $2.5 million to help cover the cost of demolishing Ladd-Peebles and rebuilding a smaller facility in that location for hosting high school and middle school football games as well as other sports like soccer and lacrosse.
Stimpson said Tuesday that would allow for a “more robust facility” that could “bring vibrancy back to what is the Ladd and Maysville community today.” He’s also suggested adding a park with walking trails or other recreational fields to Ladd’s current footprint as well.
Importantly, for the city’s support, USA would also agree to host three of Mobile’s largest collegiate bowl games — the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl and the Gulf Coast Challenge. All three events wouldn’t have to pay rent at the new stadium as well.
At the meeting, USA trustee James A. Yance told councilors he respected their diligence in reviewing the proposal, noting they “understand the value of a dollar.” He also agreed with Stimpson that giving $10 million to the university would ultimately be in the city’s best interest.
“That $10 million over 20 years actually has a present value of $6.8 million, and when you deduct what we’re giving you at its present value, what you’re really giving us is $4.3 million,” he said. “That’s a pretty good deal you’re getting.”
It’s unclear how councilors might vote, but some had more questions than others at the meeting.
After giving a well-received speech about his time as a student at USA, Councilman Fred Richardson seemed to focus less on the city’s contribution and more on what would happen to Ladd and the stadium’s board of directors if the deal were to move forward.
“Things like the Battle of the Bands, some of this can remain at Ladd,” Richardson said. “We’re going to repurpose Ladd. We’re not going to knock the whole thing down.”
He also said, if changes are made at Ladd, the city should “leave the board alone” and let the members continue to perform the same management functions they do now. Other councilors, including Bess Rich and C.J Small, seemed to agree with Richardson.
It has long been rumored the Senior Bowl might relocate due to concerns with the deteriorating condition of Ladd-Peebles — an issue Commissioner Jerry Carl has brought up during the commission’s talks ab0ut a county contribution to USA’s stadium efforts.
After the most recent Senior Bowl, former Executive Director Phil Savage added some fuel to that fire when he publicly discussed some “inherent issues” he saw at Ladd — telling WNSP Sports Radio he was interested in “a venue that our game and this event is deserving of having.”
Savage was replaced in May by longtime NFL scout Jim Nagy, who told councilors Tuesday the Senior Bowl has no plans to leave Mobile, but would be interested in playing at a more up-to-date stadium if USA were to move forward.
“We want to play our game in the best stadium possible. We want to put on the best event possible, and that would be at South in our opinion,” he said. “We can put on a game at Ladd, but we really can’t put on an event at Ladd.”
For the NFL staff who come to Mobile during Senior Bowl week and for most of the players, the practices are far more important than the game itself. USA’s campus does come with the benefit of multiple practice fields including one protected from the weather, though the campus is a 20 to 30-minute commute from downtown.
From an event planning standpoint, Nagy said the conditions at Ladd aren’t an issue as much as parking and the space available for sponsor tents, tailgating and food vendors.
“In my new role, I have to think about gameday, and I’ve never realized how landlocked that parking lot was and how limited we are space wise in and around the stadium,” Nagy said. “That’s the biggest issue for us going forward because we want to make this game more of an event so the NFL will never come in here and try to do anything to our game.”
However, the response to Stimpson’s proposal for Ladd hasn’t been universally praised.
County commissioners seem to support contributing to USA’s stadium but have been hesitant to endorse a plan that might lead to the demolition of Ladd-Peebles. Commissioners are still considering the request but have said any contribution would be less than $10 million.
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said Tuesday that because Stimpson’s proposal has “linked those two,” she wouldn’t be able to vote on the matter until she gets more information because she doesn’t believe the stadium is ready to be “put out to pasture” at this point.
“You tell me we need $6.7 million of improvements at Ladd so we walk away from that and put $20 million into a stadium at USA? That just doesn’t compute for me,” Ludgood said. “If the city won’t take care of Ladd maybe [the county] needs to because I think it is still of value to us.”
A handful of citizens also addressed the council in opposition to the deal during Tuesday’s meeting, with some questioning why millions of public dollars would go toward a college football stadium when the city has other obligations to citizens and its employees.
Tim Hollis, who made an unsuccessful bid for a City Council seat last year, said it was “shameful” that Mobile has only spent around $10 million on renovations at Ladd since 1948 but would invest millions in to something he says citizens “won’t reap any benefits from.”
“If the city thinks they’re going to vote and give my money that I pay in taxes to South Alabama, we’ll boycott and we’ll protest,” Hollis added.
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