Soccer may not be the roughest game around, but arguing over soccer facilities has practically become bloodsport in Mobile.
The wrangling over whether to build a $20-million-plus soccer facility at the nexus of our two interstates has reached a level of intensity that has created serious friction between the mayor and City Council while also creating a political chasm between the president of the County Commission and Hizzoner.
I’m going to preface this by saying I am not anti-soccer. My kids have played and my daughter still plays soccer, and I do agree there is a lack of quality places to play. I don’t really think there’s any widespread disagreement on that issue. Whether the community wants and needs a $20 million soccer facility — one that would eventually be accompanied by another $20 million worth of taxpayer-owned natatorium and water park — is a different question.
And that’s where the political battle is taking place.
The soccer complex is County Commissioner Connie Hudson’s baby and she seems determined to have it where she wants it and the way she wants it, no matter what. The issue has already caused a rift with fellow Commissioner Jerry Carl, who believes creating soccer fields throughout the county — for less money — is the way to go. But Hudson has caught a bit of the Mike Dow bug and is looking at the complex as an economic engine. Sports tourism, that’s where it’s at. She’s one click from a Hawaiian shirt on this subject.
With a shiny new economic impact study saying the soccer complex itself will lose about $250,000 a year in the first five years, but will generate about $700,000 in annual tax revenue by the end of that stretch, things look good. If that wasn’t enough to bolster the project, a WKRG poll of 3,100 people conducted two weeks ago said 65 percent of local residents want the $20 million soccer complex.
But — and there’s always a but — the next time I see a government-paid-for economic study saying the agency that paid for the study is about to make a horrible economic decision, it will be the first time. In every failed build-it-and-they-will-come program this city or county has that is currently losing buckets of money, there is an economic study that was once held up to the heavens as proof of genius and riches to come. So let’s just take that study with a grain of salt.
And while I don’t doubt the WKRG survey results saying 65 percent want the complex, the one thing that jumped out is that 82 percent of the people who said they want it would like to pay for it with oil spill money from BP. Sure, why not, it’s free money! What the soccer complex has to do with the oil spill or even conservation, considering its site contains a considerable amount of swamp, is baffling.
When confronted with paying for things with real money, though, is where it gets interesting. According to the survey, only 54 percent of those who wanted the complex want to pay for it with existing county funds and only 36 percent of that same group said they want to raise the lodging tax on hotel/motel visitors to pay for it.
So, according to the information provided with the survey, when faced with not getting the complex paid for by free money from British Petroleum, almost half of the people who originally said they wanted the complex don’t want county funds to pay for it, and MORE than half don’t want visitors to pay for it. Combined with the original 35 percent who said they didn’t want the complex in the first place, really it appears far more people don’t want the complex if it costs actual taxpayer money. The numbers almost flip-flop just on the question of paying with county funds.
Hudson asked for and got a $1.5 million pledge from the city as its buy-in on the complex, but in doing that the City Council gutted Mayor Stimpson’s plans to revitalize parks around the city, including a number of fields. He tried to push the council into not giving the county the money right now and got a lot of backlash from the council and Hudson. Things got bad enough that the council is now telling the mayor where he can look while addressing them during meetings.
One more thing I don’t understand in this situation is why Hudson needs the city’s $1.5 million now. It’s admittedly going to sit in the bank for two years at least. Seems to me the city’s promise would be enough and the money could be used this year to make sure kids can play soccer right now.
While I’m skeptical of the price and ultimate outcome for Hudson’s vision, there are plenty who think she’s right on the mark. Don Staley, executive director for sports for the Foley Sports Tourism Complex, says there’s definitely a market for tournaments and other sports that should make Mobile’s complex a raging success. Foley is currently building a 16-field complex and already advertising across the region.
Foley is getting 16 fields and accompanying buildings for $16.3 million, versus Mobile’s 10 fields for $20 million. Foley will also feature a water park privately run by the Poarch Creek Indians. Hudson has said she would like to see private involvement as well, but has offered no hard plans.
Staley says though Mobile’s complex won’t be large enough to host big-time national tournaments that can have a $5-million-plus economic impact, it could stay pretty busy not only with soccer tournaments, but ultimately Frisbee tournaments and lacrosse as well.
He rattled off the number of soccer sports tourism complexes being built in the region and likened it to the nuclear arms race. And Staley firmly believes Mobile would be missing out big by not getting behind Hudson’s grand plan.
Still, I can’t help thinking how similar this rhetoric is to what we heard when everyone was building cruise ship terminals because cruises were the “big” thing and the cruise companies never left, and there was this economic impact study ….
The basic question is still this: Do we need a soccer sports tourism complex with a natatorium and water park, or do we just need more good soccer fields all over the community? Yes, it would be nice to have the complex serve both needs, but it’s certainly the bigger gamble. The best thing we can do is take our time and get it right.
Correction 6/24/15, 7:50 p.m. – Changes made to reflect that Hudson would like to see private intestment in the water park and natatorium parts of the sports complex, although she has not made public any solid plans for that happening.