I’ve spent countless hours over the past seven years watching kids kick soccer balls around on fields all over Mobile — generally with someone scoring every third game, but kicking them nonetheless.
That doesn’t make me a soccer expert, but I feel I have paid my dues as a soccer dad and can express some opinions about the condition of this European sport taking over our area. I’d say it might be a bit more interesting with some helmets and tackling, but those suggestions would no doubt fall upon deaf ears and possibly even offend. So forget I said it.
You may have guessed soccer hasn’t exactly tickled my fancy. Granted I’ve only watched it played by children no older than 10, so I’m sure there are versions where people aren’t constantly kicking the ball out of bounds and throwing back in, but I just haven’t caught soccer fever yet. I’m trying.
To me the most excitement soccer has caused lately around these parts concerns County Commissioner Connie Hudson’s efforts to create a gigantic soccer complex and aquatics center near the junction of our two favorite interstates. Hudson hopes to see 10 tournament soccer fields — seven grass, three turf — along with a championship field with bleachers. She has said the project would be a winner financially because hosting soccer tournaments brings families that spend money, justifying expenses some fear will be in the tens of millions of dollars once all is said and done.
Hudson’s dream is to be built upon 200 acres of land, 90 of which is wetlands to be donated by the current owners. I haven’t quite figured out why the county wants the swampland, but I suppose that’ll become more obvious over time.
The complex appears to be borne out of the generally accepted point of view that there needs to be a central place for soccer in Mobile County, and that we are missing out on tons of revenue from soccer tournaments that would be hosted there, bringing families to eat, drink and stay in our fair city. And that may all be true. I could certainly agree it might be more convenient if there were a central place for the kids to play soccer, but I can also see the point of view of Hudson’s fellow Commissioner Jerry Carl that it might not be a good idea to go overboard.
But Connie is charging ahead full steam on the soccer/aquatic facility, even to the point that she’s decided to interject herself into the city’s budget process to get more money for her dream.
Of course we’ve all heard the hue and cry raised after Mayor Stimpson released his 2015 budget and it was full of cuts to various arts programs and performance contracts. Many of the cuts in that budget were made so the city can finally start spending on capital projects, such as repairing roads and bridges and cleaning up parks. These are documented problems ignored for years as the past administrations shifted capital money into running day-to-day operations.
But now Hudson is trying to get the City Council to abandon at least some of those improvements to help fund her pet project. As the council goes through its approval process for Stimpson’s budget, Hudson has called on them to push some of the $3 million the mayor has budgeted for parks improvements into her soccer complex.
Talk about kicking the ball around.
I have no idea whether Connie lobbied Sandy Stimpson to help fund the soccer complex during the time his staff was putting the budget together, but it seems like her current approach of essentially telling the council to ignore the mayor’s budget and give her the money is bound to create some bad feelings. Connie is quick to remind everyone she once served on the council and therefore knows they have the power to approve. But she also should know an outside elected official forcefully urging the council to start rewriting the budget could open the door to a protracted battle.
Worse than that, though, this same type of thinking has put the city where it is now — with hundreds and hundreds of neglected projects and a plethora of high-profile boondoggles that never lived up to the hype.
Connie is displaying the same build-it-and-they-will-come attitude former mayors Mike Dow and Sam Jones championed to lead us to an underutilized convention center, an empty cruise terminal, a baseball park that can’t support itself and a maritime museum that faces long odds of success.
Hudson has always fashioned herself as a fiscal conservative, but asking the council to take money away from real hammer-and-nail improvements to put in a complex that at this time has no really solid numbers attached to it hardly meshes with the image she’s tried to build. Hudson hasn’t told us who will have these tournaments, how many there will be or even how much the whole project will cost.
One of her big selling points for the “Dream of Fields” success is it will be located at the nexus of I-65 and I-10 where 85,000 people drive by every day. I’m not sure how many of those are soccer teams in search of a place to play a tournament, though, and will just whip off the road and start strapping on the shin guards.
And as one of my colleagues astutely pointed out, Hank Aaron Stadium sits in roughly the same position and more people are likely to attend a smartass newspaper columnist’s funeral than typically go to a BayBears game. That’s sad on both counts.
Even by Hudson’s own estimates, the first phase of her dream will take at least 18 months, which in government time means three years. There seems to be zero reason to press the city for money this year. A year from now, in theory, Hudson will have far better numbers to show Stimpson and the council so they’re not buying a pig in a poke.
I sincerely hope Connie’s soccer complex is everything she dreams it will be someday, but right now it seems unfair to expect this cash-strapped city to invest in yet another project based upon the promise of crowds of people waving money, while neglecting the facilities we already have that need fixing.