There certainly has to be a point in the birth of every public project that level-headed people have to determine whether it’s worth the time, money and effort being expended — whether it has a future that’s going to justify all the grunting and groaning.
Take the GulfQuest Maritime Museum for example. This was a breech birth if there ever was one and the thing still hasn’t taken its first breath. Sometimes I wonder if it ever will. Years late in opening already, the odds on GulfQuest being a success seem long at best right now. Hopefully that dim view will prove unfounded, but in Mobile dim views of public projects are seldom unfounded.
GulfQuest is already looking to try to nail down $10 million in RESTORE Act money that would ensure its life would at least be long if not memorable. But the only thing harder than guessing when GulfQuest will finally open is figuring out when RESTORE Act money will actually start flowing.
At this time it seems like GQ is running the Hail Mary route hoping RESTORE Act cash drops into its outstretched hands. Certainly pessimism about the maritime museum is pervasive at this point. The ship is already sailing into a pretty rough headwind and it’s still tied to the dock.
If you ask most local politicos they’ll tell you they wish there was a do-over on GulfQuest and at most it would have been a much more modest project. But thanks to the previous administrations GulfQuest is built now and one day might actually open so we can see what all the fuss is about.
Our next great public project birth looms as County Commissioner Connie Hudson continues to push her “vision” of a Soccer Complex/Aquatic Center/Water Park at the nexus of Interstates 10 and 65. Every time she opens her mouth about the project, though, the cost skyrockets. Early this week the cat was finally let out of the bag that the soccer complex ALONE will cost almost $21 million. That’s for 10 fields.
The master plan commissioned by … the commission, estimates a cost of $20.7 to get all of the soccer fields envisioned by Hudson. This is the latest eye-popping number to be attached to this project. Just a few weeks ago Hudson said it was going to cost $40 million for the whole enchilada. Today nearly that same amount is what’s needed to just to cover the soccer field and natatorium. There’s still a water park left to be built, not to mention nature trails and roadwork.
So it seems like the $40-million soccer complex/waterworld, etc. is now likely to be a good bit more costly than Hudson was estimating just a couple of weeks ago. Connieville is growing like a Pentagon weapons program.
I know Hudson has lined this out to be paid for piecemeal over the construction time, and she’s also hoping magic RESTORE Act money will pay for it all, but at some point she has to admit it’s getting out of hand.
The very concept of building a publicly owned water park is ridiculous. Look around, there are water parks in cities all over the region. There are some very successful water parks within an hour’s drive of Mobile. So why doesn’t Mobile have one?
Does anyone think the people who make waterparks haven’t ever considered Mobile? Did they not build one here because it would make too much money? I’m not really sure what the scope of Hudson’s vision for a water park is, but if it’s anything bigger than a Slip-n-Slide and a sprinkler, then you have to wonder why she thinks local government can do it better than private business. I have to imagine the folks at Waterville would long ago have plunked a water park down at I-65 and I-10 if they thought it would be a winner.
As this plan grows in scope there still are a lot of unanswered questions — particularly about how the county will pay for its day-to-day operations. For instance, will admission be charged to the water park? The privately owned ones aren’t exactly cheap, so would a government-owned water park charge as much? Or will it be free, and if so, wouldn’t that put the government in competition with privately owned water parks in the area?
Hudson still really hasn’t provided much detail as to how she expects things to run after it’s all built. It’s not part of the vision yet I suppose. As I’ve said before, if this were a private venture and someone went to the bank to ask for a loan, all those types of questions would be answered ahead of time. But because it’s free money from the government we can just wing it.
Whether RESTORE Act money should be used to support the maritime museum’s future exhibits or to build Hudson’s mammoth vision is probably debatable. What any of that had to do with the oil spill might tax the talents of even a very wily politician. But as we get further away from the spill it just looks more and more like a big pile of free money.
I know there are certainly people in town who want to see this project come to fruition — especially people involved in the soccer community. But a shovel-full of dirt hasn’t even been turned yet and the cost estimates keep getting bigger and bigger. While I know there’s a very active soccer community in Mobile, I have to wonder if this type of investment is proportionate to that community.
Football and baseball are both as big or bigger, and no one is proposing a $40-to-$50 million project for them. I’m sure there has to be a happy medium somewhere in all of this — a way to end up with quality soccer fields but not leave the city with yet another publicly funded albatross.
At the very minimum the public should get to vote on whether we really wants to spend this kind of money birthing Hudson’s big, fat baby.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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