After nearly two months of debate, the Mobile City Council voted 4-3 to deny a $10 million contribution to the University of South Alabama for an on-campus stadium.
The council’s vote effectively rejected a letter of intent between the city and USA to give $500,000 in annual installments for 20 years. In return, USA would have given the city $2.5 million to use to renovate Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
USA’s football program has used Ladd Stadium as its home field since its first season in 2009. The 70-year-old facility is also home to the Senior Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl and four area high school football teams.
In a statement emailed to media shortly after the vote, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he was disappointed in the decision. Stimpson previously stated information gathered by his office suggested maintenance costs for Ladd would rise to $33 million over the next 20 years.
“It sends a message to the NFL that the city does not support the Senior Bowl,” he said in the statement. “It leaves Ladd Stadium with zero funding to create a facility that meets the needs of the neighborhood and the four high school football teams that play there. It leaves the city with no plan to solve the $33 million maintenance issue.”
In a joint statement, USA President Tony Waldrop and Athletics Director Joel Erdmann said they were “disappointed by this setback.” The statement also applauded stadium supporters and said
in spite of the denial, USA would continue the site work for the new stadium and look for other resources.
“USA’s leadership is exploring all possible avenues of funding for the stadium, and we anticipate that we will continue to generate interest in the stadium among individuals and private organizations. We are committed to building an on-campus stadium for the Jaguars, and we will continue to keep the university community informed when we have additional news to share.”
The deal garnered support from Councilman Fred Richardson, Councilman Joel Daves and Councilwoman Gina Gregory. Councilman John Williams, Councilman C.J. Small, Council Vice President Levon Manzie and Councilwoman Bess Rich voted against the measure.
Both Rich and Small said they were originally in favor of the proposal, but changed their minds as the debate evolved. Rich said she struggled with the decision. Ultimately, she said she believes the city is big enough for both stadiums and the taxpayers’ money should be invested in Ladd.
“The stadium USA is building is for the campus; it’s not a community stadium,” she said. “In working with the Ladd board and management, I’ve learned so much about that facility. It could be so much better. Seeing it get downsized or demolished is not acceptable for a city this size.”
Rich was also concerned about the lack of an economic impact study, adding there are other ways the city can support the university as it continues to grow.
For Small, the decision came down to an “outcry” from residents in his district, but he also said the USA contribution was no different from his opposition to providing financial support for revitalizing two shopping centers — the Shoppes at Bel Air and Westwood Plaza, each of which were approved by the council over the past year.
“My job is to listen to residents,” he said. “The decision to build a stadium rests with USA.”
Small said he had assurances the Senior Bowl was not planning to leave Mobile because of the condition of Ladd, and that his constituents were concerned about losing a cultural asset to a more affluent area in West Mobile.
Stimpson said the idea that the city has been moving money and assets west is inaccurate. He argued that never in the history of the city have a council and mayor distributed funding more equitably. Stimpson applauded the council’s formation of the capital improvement plan during his first term, but said leadership from the mayor’s office was needed to implement it.
While he said it was not ultimately a condition of his vote, Williams had approached USA leadership about giving Mobile residents a 5 percent discount on tickets to games and events at the proposed stadium. He said he thought a discount would make the stadium proposal an “easier sale.”
Williams was told “no” and offered a discount ticket section instead.
“I can only imagine where that discount section might be,” he said, insinuating nosebleed seats that are already discounted.
Williams added he has “no doubt” USA will build a stadium eventually and “it will be fantastic,” but he said he made a commitment to residents of Mobile to work on infrastructure, park improvements and other issues.
Manzie, an alumnus of USA, said his opposition was backed by “a vast majority” of District 2 residents. Without assurances residents of Maysville would see an injection of redevelopment funding after Ladd was demolished, he voted against the proposal.
“I’m wishing USA well,” he said. “I’m hopeful they’ll be able to do what they need to do when they need to do it.”
Richardson, also a USA alumnus, argued the $2.5 million for Ladd would have reduced the city’s contribution to only $7.5 million.
“Prior to this [letter of intent], Ladd was off the radar,” Richardson said. “USA has placed Ladd on front street and we now have this opportunity to help USA to build a stadium and help Ladd remain viable. After this, Ladd will go back into oblivion.”
Richardson added that Stimpson had committed an additional $2 million for Ladd and was willing to talk to the County Commission and the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners about a possible $4 million more. However, as Small pointed out, there was no guarantee the mayor could gain the support of either.
Daves supported the measure to help bolster one of the city’s “biggest economic drivers” in USA. Both Daves and Gregory said they were looking for a solution to the maintenance issues plaguing Ladd.
In other business, the council approved a stormwater management fee. The fee, which will essentially tax residents $10 per year and tax commercial properties at a half cent per square foot of space up to $3,000, will be added to county property tax bills this year.
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