Ann Pond had a big plan for tourism in downtown Mobile. To piggyback on the city’s opening of Mardi Gras Park in 2016, the author of a trilogy of Mardi Gras history books and a board member of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society conceived the “Mardi Gras Trail,” a series of historically significant sites that would be designated with historic markers and listed in a pamphlet for self-guided walking tours.
As Lagniappe and other news outlets reported at the time, initial plans envisioned four to five sites between the riverfront and Bienville Square, but Pond hoped to eventually expand the trail west into Midtown. To pay for the markers, Pond sold engraved bricks, which were to be laid around the markers and listed on an accompanying website.
But despite the promotion and a public kickoff party in November 2016, not a single brick or marker has been placed today. After receiving a number of inquiries about the status of the project from people who purchased bricks, Pond admitted this week the project was rejected by the city and she is attempting to refund those who invested and revamp a “virtual trail” online while she hopes the city may consider other options to commemorate physical sites.
“It started with an idea to put historic Mardi Gras sites on a pamphlet but we talked about getting historic markers,” Pond recalled Friday, noting she discussed the idea with fellow board members and staff at the Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS) and Cart Blackwell at the city, who at the time was deputy director of the Mobile Historic Development Commission.
Pond said historic markers can be ubiquitous and overlooked, so she suggested selling and placing inscribed bricks around them to attract more attention and to pay for the markers themselves.
Although she claims to have received tentative approval from the city’s traffic and engineering departments, Pond said subsequently, she got a cold reception from the mayor’s office and HMPS distanced itself from the project.
“I thought [the bricks] would sell themselves and it would generate public interest,” she said. “I did everything humanly possible to have everything 100 percent approved, to do every bit of paperwork. Everything was so clearly documented. We were very strict about measuring how many bricks would be necessary, how much they would cost to put a marker in the middle.
“We identified three to four different sites, talked with engineering and traffic departments and went ahead with the sale of bricks,” she continued. “After I thought everything was done, I started getting all these questions from the administration.”
City spokesman George Talbot said this week “there was never any formal approval or authorization for” the project, and Pond “never requested nor received the necessary right-of-way permits.” Further, Talbot said the city was never given “any visibility into fundraising.”
The project was initially promoted as a joint venture between Pond and HMPS, but Pond told Lagniappe in 2016 it would eventually be “its own entity, even while we apply for the 501(c)(3) status.” As a nonprofit, the trail could apply for grants to supplement the sales of engraved bricks, she explained.
HMPS Executive Director Bob Allen told Lagniappe this week his organization was never “part of that project … a participant or an endorser.”
Josh McKenzie said while the project was being heavily promoted in early 2017, he bought two bricks from Pond, which were intended to be engraved in memory of his dogs and placed in Bienville Square.
“I emailed in September 2017 checking in on the bricks and installation and she immediately wrote back saying it should be a month and everyone is frustrated,” he said. “In April 2018 I emailed her again, and then she took a few days to write back to say, ‘You’re wonderful for being patient with us, but we still have no communication from the city and I’m in an awkward situation.’”
In follow-up requests, McKenzie said Pond provided more excuses, but never offered a refund.
“I know of five people off hand who bought bricks, and I don’t know anyone who ever saw a refund,” he said.
Last week, Pond said she continued to sell the bricks through 2017, but after negotiations with the city broke down and HMPS backed off, the nonprofit was never created.
“I was absolutely floored, devastated,” she said. “A whole year of my life I put into this.”
Between 120 and 200 bricks were sold at a price of $85 to $110 each, she said, and she spent the proceeds on advertising and engraved bricks for the first site. She has given some refunds, but while “personal problems” in the past year have strained her resources, she said she still tries to refund a few orders each month.
“I had been at the forefront, I had been the one promoting it, so I did feel like I was responsible,” she said. “I still have a stack of bricks and I’ve personally tried to pay these people back until they can see their bricks in the ground.”
Blackwell, who left the city to become director of the Mobile Carnival Museum, recalled the Mardi Gras Trail as “a very good project in concept,” but said Pond “did not follow-up in terms of the proper city departments and in the community itself.”
“It was about dotting I’s and crossing T’s,” he said.
McKenzie remains disappointed.
“This whole thing was a big deal — she had a party at the waterfront with the Excelsior Band,” he said. “If she has the bricks, at least give them to the people who bought them. Or if not, give the money back.”
Editor’s note: After this article went to press, Pond accounted for 124 bricks sold.
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