Photo | Shane Rice
Little has happened with the 22-acre site where the Mobile Civic Center sits since one of two groups named finalists to redevelop the tract dropped out of the running in July 2019.
The withdrawal of Mobile Civic Center Redevelopment Partners, led by Stirling Properties, left only the Cordish Company and its outdoor-focused Live! concept as the lone finalist for the redevelopment opportunity.
Amid pushback from Mardi Gras societies and others, plans again shifted to a possible new Civic Center arena with a smaller Live! concept behind it, but while the city has previously said the ball is in the developer’s court on the new plans, nothing substantial has come to fruition.
Earlier in 2021, at a Breakfast with the Mayor event held by the Downtown Mobile Alliance, Stimpson said the city could possibly use some of its projected $100 million in reserve funds to redevelop the area, but didn’t expand on those plans.
In 2019, Stirling Properties Vice President William Barrois said the group involved with the Town Center project was bowing out because it was apparent Stimpson and the city preferred the Cordish plan to theirs, and it wouldn’t be a level playing field.
“Unfortunately, despite our sincere desire to be a part of the redevelopment of this site, we feel that the project objectives and scope have fundamentally moved beyond what we contemplated when we decided to pursue this project,” Barrois wrote. “Further, we believe that our competitor responded in a radically different way than we did to the Request for Proposal, making comparisons of proposals challenging to say the least. Our view is that the RFP required this level of disclosure, but we understand that the competing team did not make a similarly detailed proposal.”
Lagniappe requested and reviewed the proposals in question. While the proposal from Civic Center Redevelopment Partners, LLC included financial information, a plan for how the city would pay for the project and a section about Mardi Gras, the Cordish Companies proposal did not address any of that.
In fact, under a section called “Recent Financial History,” Cordish Companies’ proposal doesn’t include any physical numbers and instead discusses the success the company has had with recent redevelopment opportunities.
“Of significance, many of Cordish’s award-winning developments were successfully undertaken and completed after years and sometimes decades of failed attempts by other developers prior to our involvement,” the proposal read. “In many circumstances, The Cordish Companies replaced other developers that had over-promised their public–sector partner with over-ambitious projects and then failed to deliver.”
In the proposal’s executive summary, Cordish does add that it can fund 100 percent of the equity required for the project, “should that be necessary.”
A Cordish Companies spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
City spokesman Jason Johnson told Lagniappe the city had asked Cordish for more robust financial information and never received it. That is one reason, Johnson said, the proposal didn’t move forward. The COVID-19 pandemic also slowed things down.
Unlike Cordish, the Stirling group’s projections included “market assumptions” based on apartments, retail space, restaurant space, a grocery store, a hotel and other amenities. It also included “construction cost assumptions” for the first year on all of these entities.
The differences between the two proposals still stick in the craw of those involved on the Stirling group’s side.
Two sources involved in the group’s original proposal reiterated on the condition of anonymity that they felt the city was pushing for the Cordish plan and that’s why the group backed out. Both sources feel proof for their suspicions can be seen in the fact that members of the Mobile City Council and administration officials visited one of Cordish’s Live! concepts in Louisville, Kentucky, but did not visit an arena site developed by Stirling and others.
Johnson admitted the city was “leaning” toward the Cordish property because it fit better with the vision the mayor’s office has had for the space. However, Johnson added that the administration also introduced plans for a new Civic Center building and a small Cordish concept to complement it.
While many Carnival associations currently use the Civic Center for balls, Mobile Carnival Association President David Cooper Sr. said in an email that it is “premature to panic” about the “demise” of the Civic Center without learning more information, or a study from the City Council.
“Ultimately, the Mobile Carnival Association has complete confidence in the city’s leadership,” Cooper wrote. “We are also confident that as the City Council and the mayor work towards any decisions involving the Civic Center, they will consider not just the cost of the Civic Center, but also the overall effect on the revenue-producing industry of Mardi Gras all over downtown and throughout the city.”
In the proposal’s executive summary, Cordish calls a potential Mobile Live! “an indoor-outdoor hub.” In addition to the Live! concept, which in other areas has resembled an outdoor concert space surrounded by retail, restaurants and living space, Cordish said the plan for Mobile would include an “open market hall” for events, such as a holiday bazaar, a farmers’ market or an arts and crafts event. The plan would also include a hotel and townhouses, according to the executive summary.
Cordish had also planned to refurbish the Civic Center theater to serve as an “authentic touchstone” for the area, according to the executive summary.
“Our broad goal will be to develop a project that complements existing uses within the core of the city and the surrounding entertainment district, building on its strengths while being very sensitive to the diverse range of users including office workers, visitors and others who come to be entertained in the area,” the summary read. “Our vision for the Civic Center site could include office, residential, hospitality, retail and restaurants, which will ensure that the Mobile Civic Center environment will be active all day long.”
The Town Center plan by Stirling and others proposed an event center on the Civic Center site, a refurbished theater, a grocery store, office space and apartments, according to the proposal’s executive summary.
In addition to the indoor events center and theater, mixed-use development would include 657,000 square feet of apartments or approximately 550 units, 181,000 square feet of first-floor retail and commercial space, including a 30,000 square-foot grocery store and as much as 160,000 square feet of office space, the summary read.
To pay for the project, the group suggested the city make the area a cooperative redevelopment district. The district would own the civic portion of the project, the summary read, and lease them to the city. The summary suggests the city could make $10 million to $11 million in revenue when the annual tax revenue is compared to the annual bond payments and both are coupled with a decrease in operating losses.
Another tidbit in the Stirling proposal was an idea to allow AMG Global — the company hired by the city to manage the Civic Center and Saenger Theater — to take over control of GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.
GulfQuest was initially run by a non-profit board out of a city-owned building on the Mobile riverfront. However, after a lackluster showing in its first year of operation, the city took over operations of the museum and haven’t relinquished them. The museum employees are now city employees. Allowing AMG Global to take over the facility would change that.
In a statement, Stimpson said plans for the Civic Center are still part of his agenda, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed things a bit.
“When we are ready to move forward, engaging with the community will be an important first step,” Stimpson said in the statement. “A lot of things have changed since these initial conversations started in 2019, and that’s why input from local stakeholders and the community at large are so important.”
As for whether the city needs a new Civic Center, Stimpson said the center needs to be better overall.
“We know the Mobile Civic Center needs to be improved so that it can meet modern standards for an event venue of that size,” Stimpson said in the statement. “There has not been any firm decision made on the best way to get there.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich and councilmen John Williams and Fred Richardson were all given presentations on both proposal finalists in 2019. Each has a different take on what should be done with the Civic Center property.
Rich believes the council was being pushed to adopt the Cordish plan. She said the Stirling group did a better job answering the request for proposals.
“I felt they weren’t given a level playing field,” she said of Stirling. “It bothered me.”
Everyone should have answered the RFP in a similar way, Rich said. That way the administration and council could do a true apples-to-apples comparison, she said.
Rich said she always felt a city the size of Mobile needed to have a dedicated, indoor events facility, like the one proposed by Stirling. She also believed the city should own the building or contribute, in some way, to its construction.
“The city needs to have skin in the game,” she said. “Any city worth its salt has an event venue. I think there needs to be a hybrid.”
Rich also doesn’t believe the discussions over the Civic Center property are over. She added that having something new “would be nice.’
“When (the Civic Center) was built, it was built for Mardi Gras,” she said. “It wasn’t for everyone’s usage. I think we’ve evolved and we’ve become more community minded.”
As for the Stirling group’s proposal to take over operation of GulfQuest, Rich said the museum’s operations were never meant to be a city function.
Richardson, who is one of four candidates running against Stimpson for mayor this year, said there were aspects of both 2019 proposals he didn’t like. For example, he said he didn’t want the property to include apartments, like the ones offered by the Stirling group, especially with space available at Mobile Housing Board-owned complexes Orange Grove and Josephine Allen.
“I was not going to vote for houses,” Richardson said. “We have plenty of land for houses.”
However, Richardson said he was also against any plan that didn’t refurbish the Civic Center in some way.
“I’m not supporting anything that leaves us without a Civic Center,” he said.
Like Rich, Richardson also felt the administration was pushing the Cordish plan and its Live! concept. However, he believes members of council were also pushing for the proposal that didn’t include a Civic Center building.
If given the opportunity, Richardson said he would renovate the Civic Center and add a parking deck.
“Look at the building,” he said. “It’s simply beautiful.”
Similar to the fight to keep Ladd-Peebles Stadium unaltered, Richardson said whether or not a public venue makes money should not matter.
“They’re not meant to make money,” he said. “They provide a service.”
Williams’ take was more nuanced than that of his colleagues. While he acknowledges the city needs to do something differently, he said he doesn’t know what the future holds.
“I don’t know that I have a preference,” Williams said. “I thought we needed to do something different because this wasn’t doing it.”
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