It has been 20 years since David Rasp mortgaged his house to open his first restaurant in downtown Mobile.
“My options were to make it, or be homeless,” he said, from a side table amidst a number of flat-panel televisions at Heroes Sports Bar and Grille downtown.
Since then, he’s relied on a strong customer base in the city’s entertainment districts to be successful. Rasp now has three eateries, but he also has new concerns and it involves a plan being pushed by the city to redevelop the Civic Center.
“Now, 20 years later, there could be new competition coming in and it’s being co-sponsored by the city,” he said. “We have seen examples of ‘if you build it, they may not come’ before. We’re in the shadow of one now.”
Rasp questions the wisdom of the city moving forward on a proposal by The Cordish Companies to redevelop the 10,000-seat arena and the property it sits on into an outdoor event space, surrounded by more restaurants and shopping.
It’s not that Rasp has an issue with competition, he competes with 53 other downtown restaurants on a daily basis. His argument against a proposal like Cordish’s is more philosophical because the proposal will most likely involve some sort of public buy-in from the city.
“I personally think any restaurant owner with a storefront might have a problem with this,” he said.
The Maryland-based Cordish Companies’ plan was one of two proposals, but one group led by Louisiana-based Stirling Properties recently bowed out of the competition, taking with it the only idea that included an indoor event space.
One of the selling points for the Cordish plan for the city’s real estate consultants was the company’s ability to bring in its own restaurant chains, something that has added to the concerns of local restaurant owners.
In comments during a recent Mobile City Council meeting, Mayor Sandy Stimpson declared that the competition was over, but he has also previously stated that The Cordish Companies’ plans are preliminary and can be changed.
Despite those reassurances, downtown restaurateurs join Rasp in questioning the move. Frankie Little, owner of Roosters Latin American Food, said he takes issue with public money going toward a project that would bring in more competition.
“It appears they would be getting the upper hand from the city,” Little said. “Nobody else in the downtown area received help. It just seems like it would be an uneven playing field.”
On the other hand, if the company purchased the land itself and redeveloped it without help from the city, Little said he wouldn’t have a problem with it. But, he added, he would like to see a new multi-use facility on the Civic Center property.
“It would help Mobile,” he said. “It could drive some business.”
Tony Sawyer, owner of Bob’s Downtown Restaurant, said he would prefer the city to help redevelop some of the old, abandoned buildings in the corridor, rather than redevelop something new.
“New business downtown is a good thing,” Sawyer said. “I have no problem with other restaurants, or other businesses. It’s the spending of hard-earned tax dollars on it that I have a problem with.”
The money could be better spent on the replanting of live oaks in the area, or new parking structures, or possibly even a new football or baseball stadium on the Civic Center property, he said.
Carol Hunter, spokesperson for the Mobile Downtown Alliance, said the 55 restaurants in the downtown area represent the largest number of eateries in the 30 years she has lived here.
“It’s a good indicator of a couple of things,” she said. “One, you’ve succeeded in creating a dining destination … It’s also an indication of a growing residential population downtown.”
However, no matter how strong the dining destination might be, Hunter said at some point “the pie gets smaller” when there is an oversaturation of eateries.
“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” she said.
It’s hard to know what would happen if a “cluster” of new restaurants were to open up in one location.
“Without attracting more new visitors, though, the slices of pie would get smaller,” she said. “Would a concept like that bring in enough new people to make a difference? I don’t think we know until it’s up and operating.”
Stimpson has previously compared The Cordish Companies’ concept to a development the company opened in Louisville, Kentucky. He envisions the new development leading the way in driving as many as 3 million more tourists per year into the city, while the older entertainment districts would serve locals and regulars. Mobile currently attracts about 3 million tourists per year, as of 2017 numbers, meaning tourism would basically double.
While restaurant owners have taken issue with the plans, hoteliers don’t yet seem to be bothered by them, or at least it hasn’t been a topic of discussion, Mobile Area Lodging Association President Kent Blackinton said.
“That tells me it’s not a huge concern yet,” he said. “It could change.”
Blackinton said he would bring it up at the group’s August meeting.
Members of the Stimpson administration have said they plan to bring formal contracts to the council by the end of September. If those are approved, Cordish will have six to nine months to further study the market and come up with a concept that fits Mobile.
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