Dozens of area leaders and fútbol enthusiasts were on hand last week with shovels as Mobile County broke ground on a multi-field soccer complex seven years in the making.
The tossing of the ceremonial dirt marked the official beginning of the Mobile County Soccer Complex, which will be situated in the corridor of Interstate 10 and Interstate 65. It’s a facility the county hopes can provide a place for local youth soccer teams to play and practice, and a venue that will attract state and regional tournaments.
Work has already begun on the $4 million first phase of the project, which will include the construction of four lighted fields — two of which will have seating — as well as the irrigation, sewer and landscaping infrastructure at the complex.
Two additional phases are planned but aren’t expected to move forward until the necessary funding has been secured, which officials say could come from a number of sources including additional county appropriations, private donations and competitive grants.
The county has already received around $84,000 in grants from the U.S. Soccer Foundation and the Schmidt & Barton Family Fund to help defray the cost of construction.
The exact cost of the later phases isn’t ironed out, but a previous submission for Restore Act funding estimated it to be around $17.8 million. The county also has plans to close on an $800,000 deal to purchase an additional 30 acres to accommodate those phases this week.
The ultimate vision is for the complex is to have 10 fields including a championship-caliber pitch with bleachers for spectators, concession stands and adequate restroom facilities. The completed complex will ultimately be managed by Mobile United Football Club (MUFC).
“Two tournament-quality fields and two seated fields are a great addition, but we know that it’s still not enough to meet the needs of this community,” Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson said. “We’ve come a long way, but our work today is really just the beginning.”
While Friday’s groundbreaking was a county celebration, it’s safe to say most eyes were on Hudson, who faced an uphill climb in order to bring the complex to fruition. It’s a project she’s pushed for since 2012 and one that continued to hit a number of roadblocks along the way.
The county spent just shy of $500,000 evaluating the economic and environmental feasibility of the complex between 2014 and 2016 only to have a plan that would have built the facility with borrowed money voted down by Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Jerry Carl.
Despite the setback, Hudson retooled her approach and came back to the table with a three-part plan that funded most of the initial work in Phase I with monies allocated to her district. The Commission unanimously approved the first phase of that plan earlier this year.
It’s taken all three commissioners to get the project where it is today, but at the groundbreaking, Carl seemed to acknowledge he was once a critic of Hudson’s initial plan to fund the complex.
“Good government always brings out good debate, and we’ve certainly had a good debate on this project. However, I like the way this is going, and to Commissioner Hudson, who has never lost her vision and never lost her drive, I say congratulations on this complex. You’ve earned it,” Carl said. “Any investment we can make into our children is well worth every dollar we spend.”
Several members of the Mobile City Council were also on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking along with Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who said the city and the county have both needed additional public recreational facilities for some time and could still use more.
“It’s not just an investment in our children, it’s in the whole community, and this comes at a time when the City Council will be spending more money from our [Capital Improvement Plan] on our parks and recreation facilities than at any time in the history of the city,” Stimpson said. “We’ve been behind, and it’s time to catch up. I feel like this is a great start in that direction.”
Aside from serving local youth players, the county is also hopeful its facility will be able to have an economic impact by bringing in large-scale tournaments from throughout the region.
Danny Corte, president of the Mobile County Sports Authority, said even with four fields, a soccer tournament in Mobile would likely have seven pitches at its disposal with the three the city owns at Sage Park. He said those could be used to host tournaments for other sports, too.
Part of the discussion surrounding Hudson’s proposal to build a tournament-quality soccer complex over the years has been whether the county would be too little, too late. There are already existing complexes in Foley, Daphne and Orange Beach attracting large tournaments.
While those facilities will no doubt compete for tournaments, Corte said he believes there’s enough of a need to keep the county’s complex fully scheduled. He also said the area’s existing infrastructure of hotels, restaurants, interstates and airports give it a competitive advantage.
One person who seemed to agree with Corte was Patrick Dungan, who helped found the AFC Mobile Azaleas, a semi-pro soccer team in Mobile. Speaking on behalf of the organization, Dungan said he’d love to see AFC Mobile move its games to the county complex in the future.
Dungan is also the father of a young soccer player and his family regularly travels to soccer tournaments. He said, at those events, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of cars from three to five surrounding states — each representing a family that needs gas, food and a place to stay.
“Just about everyone I’ve spoken with tells me they’d rather go to tournaments in Mobile so they wouldn’t have to drive an extra 45 minutes to Foley, and then pay a toll to get back and forth between the soccer fields and their $300-a-night hotel room by the beach,” Dungan said. “I can also assure you, as someone who has been to many of these tournaments, that after baking in the sun all day watching soccer games, nobody wants to go to the beach.”
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