When County Commissioner Connie Hudson finally put a number to her big dream soccer complex/aquatic center last week, it left most voters gasping for air in a way reminiscent of when we found out who shot J.R. (That reference really may be too old to be used anywhere outside an AARP newsletter.)
Forty million dollars. Forty million dollars!! Really?
Yes, that’s what Hudson — pressed by her antagonist Commissioner Jerry Carl — admitted her fully implemented plan will cost. When it was $12 million a couple of months ago it was enough to send Carl into a tailspin, but at $40 million the whole concept seems like a bad joke.
I immediately got the image of Hudson channeling Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies, spinning in her chair while stroking a bald, wrinkly cat and saying “Forty Mill-Yon Dollars! Muahhahahahaha!”
OK, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it may as well have been from the public reaction as the number ricocheted around local media. Needless to say, even in the “City of Big Projects” that kind of price tag isn’t getting much support. Many of the vocal soccer moms and dads who had really wanted a big time soccer facility have even backed away from it as you would a bundle of dynamite with a burning fuse.
Connie quickly issued a damage-control statement, dismissing the “misunderstanding of anticipated project costs and funding sources that have arisen due to media reports about the inclusion of the Mobile County Soccer/Aquatic Complex on the county’s Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund Project Suggestion List.” So while she’s the one who said $40 million, it’s just a misunderstanding.
What Hudson went on to say she wasn’t suggesting spending $40 million on the soccer complex. That kind of coin would only come into play if we can get the entire package — 10 soccer fields, 12-acre water park, 25,000 sq. ft. natatorium and 80-acre natural habitat/walking trail. That’s only if some free money such as private investment or RESTORE Act money can be shaken loose.
Still Connie, this thing’s getting bigger and bigger by the minute.
Like so many of the “pearls” we’ve built over the past 30 years, this project has “wouldn’t it be wonderful” written all over it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a big soccer complex, water park, swimming facility and nature walk and didn’t have to pay for it? Sure, I guess. Although no one has yet come up with an annual upkeep, maintenance and employment cost for “Connieville.”
And maybe that’s the most frustrating thing about all of this. If John Q. Public went down to the bank with this same plan and wanted to borrow $40 million, they’d ask some questions. Hard questions, such as who will use the facilities? Do you have realistic numbers on what you’ll need to attract annually to make a profit?
Probably down to how much are you going to charge for the birdseed on the nature trail?
But in the world of big dream government projects no one has to answer such questions before the money starts moving around. Hudson already used political muscle to get the City Council to take $1.5 million from the new budget that had been set aside for fixing parks and soccer fields around the city and donate it to her pet project. Why the council did this I still don’t know. I’d imagine that after Hudson spilled the $40 million beans some council members might like that vote back.
To me this project has always seemed so incredibly forced. It reminds me of the Mike Dow days where the vision is already laid out before anyone really even hears about it. You’d think if we were going to really embark upon something like this there would be a legitimate countywide site selection, not just one or two people deciding a swamp near the nexus of our interstates is “it.” That she keeps pushing the interstates as a huge plus while the failed baseball park languishes a pop fly away is like a Jedi Mind Trick. “This is not the empty baseball field you’re looking for.”
Looking around the web at what other big time facilities like this have cost, I ran across a list of the country’s best soccer complexes. Among them was a $10-million facility in Redding, Cal. with 2,000 feet of covered seating space and full-service restaurant. Another in Casa Grande, Ari. ran $20 million, has eight fields, hotels, players’ lounge and an 18-hole golf course.
But there are other interesting things to see while surfing Al Gore’s most famous invention — his second most famous, oddly, was a line of erotic gels. (He’s a renaissance man.)
In Lemont, Ill. residents are currently trying to fight off their mayor’s plan for a $21 million sports complex. Just like here, promises of financial success are fueling the project.
But people there are looking to nearby Bridgeview, Ill., where a new soccer stadium wasn’t supposed to cost residents anything. Now, however, the village of 16,000 people is more than $200 million in debt and can’t pay back its loans.
In the Chicago Tribune story, University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson, who has studied sports complexes, said citizens should be wary.
“If the project doesn’t come through, who’s financially responsible?” Sanderson said. “In these things, the mayor’s personal income and savings should be where the money comes from.”
Or perhaps the county commissioner’s.
At a time when a quick tour around town can reveal a cruise ship terminal without a ship, a baseball park without attendees, a convention center with few conventions and a maritime museum that is woefully behind schedule and a major concern for local officials, playing Walt Disney and building a giant soccer/aquatic complex makes no sense to me.
I’m sure local leaders have already blown through a truckload of Crest whitening strips trying to shine up their pained smiles when talking about the GulfQuest maritime museum. If it is a bust this community is going to be pretty much O-fer on a fist full of projects that were supposed to bring tourists with cargo shorts pockets stuffed full of money.
And now, into this history of failure, Hudson wants to toss $40 million, just to see if it will work. I don’t care if it is RESTORE Act money, this complex has already grown too big to continue — certainly not without outlining a very detailed plan the whole community can digest. Even then we ought to put it to a community vote.
The last thing we need is one more big idea that haunts us for years to come.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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