Against the backdrop of bickering and posturing about why the city of Mobile should or should not pledge $10 million over 20 years to help the University of South Alabama build an on-campus football stadium, let’s take stock of the athletic and major entertainment facilities the city currently has, and which events we need to retain or attract.
We have an aging baseball stadium in a great location that will soon have no regular tenant when the Mobile BayBears leave Hank Aaron Stadium for the Huntsville area after the 2019 season.
We have an aging Ladd-Peebles Stadium in a location that is not nearly as dangerous as many people make it out to be, but perception in many cases is reality. The stadium is far from falling down, but there’s no question it’s showing its age after 70 years of use.
We have an aging civic center that has already narrowly escaped the wrecking crane but is in a great location.
We have the awesome Saenger Theatre downtown, which is celebrated by everyone who goes there.
We have the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, which is also a spectacular venue. You’ll probably have to just take my word for that, since you’ve almost certainly never been to the place even though it opened three years ago and cost $62 million — including $28 million in bond money and $14.6 million in federal funds — although the original cost was pegged at $36 million.
Also on the waterfront we have the perfectly functional convention center and the cruise terminal, which delivers the message that Mobile has more than a maddening tunnel to get through on the way from Mississippi to Florida or vice versa.
And we have the historically significant USS Alabama and the surrounding area, which is a source of pride for us all.
What Mobile doesn’t have is a new stadium or arena in a cool part of town — a fact that sets us apart from any city you could possibly consider our peer (Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Pensacola, Gulf Shores, Biloxi, New Orleans).
More importantly, what we’re also missing is the collective brainpower gathered in one room to decide what makes the most sense in terms of retaining and enhancing our most important events — Mardi Gras, the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl, South Alabama football, the TenSixtyFive music festival — while also attracting new events, games and teams.
I don’t have the answer to what we should do with our existing venues. But I know a lot of smart people who could offer valuable input on the best direction to go.
Among those people I would count Chris Morgan, general manager of the BayBears; Vic Knight, who helps manage Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the Mishkin Group; Danny Corte of the Mobile Sports Authority; Angus Cooper, chairman of the Mobile Arts and Sports Association; Jim Nagy of the Reese’s Senior Bowl; Jerry Silverstein of the Dollar General Bowl; Mike Gottfried, who helped bring the bowl game to the city; Joe Gottfried, head of the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame; Joel Erdmann, athletics director at USA; Reggie Copeland, the former council member who has been so instrumental in promoting sports in Mobile; Fred Richardson, who is heading the committee to decide how to proceed with the city’s support for a USA stadium; other members of the City Council and County Commission and, of course, Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
I would never presume it’s feasible to build a downtown stadium or arena, although I do wonder how our peer cities have figured out how to do so. But wouldn’t it make sense to bring together the brightest and most involved people in our city to brainstorm a long-term plan for what might be best for supporting Mardi Gras, major sports and major entertainment in our city for decades to come?
I believe South Alabama building an on-campus stadium is a no-brainer great idea. I also think it makes perfect sense for the city to follow through with the $10 million over 20 years to get the project off the ground.
But perhaps we wouldn’t be experiencing the unnecessary bickering if the USA stadium project were part of a larger plan we could all get excited about.
Maybe there’s such a plan in place that we don’t know about. But I know I would feel much better about it if I knew at least some of the people named above had been called to one place to brainstorm ways to make the city’s sports and entertainment landscape what we all hope it can be.
The time for distrust and each person protecting his or her own turf should be over. What could possibly be the harm in getting together a group of smart people who love Mobile to discuss what is and is not possible for the city over the next five or 50 years?
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.