I can’t remember a time when Mobile has been in such a twist about so many things at once. There’s full-on homicidal rage about the proposal to slap a $6 toll on the I-10 bridge over the Mobile River, should it actually ever be built.
And then there was a more resigned, slow-burn anger over the city agreeing to pay $2 million of GulfQuest’s debt and permanently fund the employees running the struggling maritime museum. The hanging threat of the Feds snatching back $26 million in transportation funds if GulfQuest goes belly-up is like a gun to the head of the city now forking out millions for this monument to local industry that started out with such insanely wild projections. If you remember those heady days of blabbering about high-speed ferries and 350,000 visitors a year though, there’s now a high degree of aggravation that comes anytime you see that concrete albatross perched upon the banks of the Mobile River.
Even before the plop-plop, fizz-fizz of a tall glass of Alka-Seltzer could cool the city’s collective heartburn though, we’re now wrangling over what shall become of our 55-year-old Civic Center (CC). If only there was Social Security for public buildings we could just wait a few more years, but Mayor Sandy Stimpson has been trying for several years now to close this fine example of ’60s architecture and ’80s political corruption. The latter of those attributes may have played a larger role in Mobile regularly being passed over by concert promoters in the ’90s than its Beverly Hillbillies From Outer Space façade, but these days it’s the old gal’s brittle bones and years of neglect that have Stimpson warming up the bulldozer and promoters giggling about other venues.
An effort to close the CC a couple of years ago was met with a massive outcry by the city’s Mardi Gras participants, who use it for their annual balls. Stimpson conducted an about-face on the closure at the time, but has dreamed all along of a public-private partnership that would “re-imagine” the downtown acreage currently taken up by the old building. The effort to make it happen began in earnest late last year when a request for qualifications (RFQ) was issued and global commercial real estate and financial services firm CBRE was chosen to oversee the selection process. But something strange happened on the way to redevelopment — one of the two finalists dropped out of the competition last week.
Mobile Civic Center Redevelopment Partners — a group of 17 companies led by Stirling Properties — took themselves out of contention, claiming the process was unfair and a clear preference for the other developer, Cordish Companies, existed. Stirling also pointed out Cordish had not followed the RFQ requirements in designing its plan.
While it’s a matter of opinion whether Cordish was given preference by the mayor or the selection company, the RFQ does indeed say the developer should propose a plan for a multi-use sports facility that can host Mardi Gras balls and also serve as a landmark building. It calls for a mix of residential, office and retail space, too. From what I saw of the Stirling plan, it did just those things, including a 6,500-seat, multi-use arena. The arena, though, would only happen with $66 million in bond money from the city, which definitely caused heart palpitations in City Hall.
The Cordish plan is more open air, features no arena and would also include several themed restaurants and retail. Looking at photos of their Fourth Street Live! development in Louisville, Kentucky, as an example, it appears they would strive to create an instant second downtown entertainment district like the one that has developed along Dauphin Street over the past 30 years.
When the two plans became public, lines were immediately drawn. Mardi Gras groups openly lobbied for the Stirling plan because it keeps the balls and parades in the same area they’ve been for decades. Downtown entertainment business and restaurant owners expressed horror at the idea of the city hiring someone to create a whole new entertainment district to compete with them. But the mayor and some members of the City Council toured Fourth Street Live! and came back “wowed” by the experience. For some reason they never managed to go see anything run by the other group, one of the complaints Stirling registered in its letter.
Now it looks like the die is cast even before the game has really started. Stimpson says they plan to stay on the original timeline, so reopening the process probably isn’t in the stars. And I doubt anyone on the council is fired up to consider a $66 million bond issue for an arena.
But there are some real issues that need to be addressed before the city goes forward with the Cordish plan.
Most concerning of all is the mayor’s admission we really need to double our annual tourism numbers from about 2.9 million visitors to 6 million in order for it to be a success. I take success here to mean the new development gets the visitors it needs and doesn’t bleed dry those who have already made a substantial investment in downtown.
Such Dow-esque tourism fantasies smack of the backroom acid-drops that must have produced the early GulfQuest attendance goals and hallucinations of high-speed ferries. I love this city, but ain’t no 3 million more people coming here as tourists anytime soon. Building something that only works with a massive increase in tourism is what got us GulfQuest.
The mayor and council need to keep in mind that the common notion the Civic Center doesn’t do anything but host Mardi Gras balls is patently false. The facility is expected to finish this year with 360 event days, including several sporting events. It’s hardly sitting idle.
And while the Civic Center doesn’t draw the kinds of concerts Biloxi and Pensacola routinely get, the ghosts of Gary Greenough and George Juzang aren’t to blame. Those running the facility now say the uncertainty hovering over the CC hurts booking, as does the fact its roof rigging isn’t strong enough for most modern music acts. They say promoters come to look at Mobile all the time, but pass because of the facility’s specs.
Spending millions on a new arena may be outside Mobile’s price range right now, but I do wonder what the plan is for all those other events currently being housed by the Civic Center. Repairing the current CC would cost tens of millions. The Cordish plan comes with little to no overhead, but seems like an equally big gamble that could not only leave us with a ghost town where the CC now stands, but also harm the growth of downtown, all while making the biggest city I can think of without a municipal arena.
It’s hard to say whether building a new arena is absolutely the right move, but it sure would have been nice to have an opportunity to kick the tires on both plans a little more before moving forward.
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