Last Thursday, representatives with Sports Facilities Advisory (SFA) met with several stakeholders with interests in a proposed soccer complex the Mobile County Commission has been discussing for more than a year.
The meeting was part of a $48,000 marketability study the commission approved in February aimed at shaping a business plan for operating a 10-field facility, estimated to cost anywhere from $20 million to more than $40 million.
Members of the soccer community, as well as other sports like rugby, lacrosse and swimming, sat down with members of the Mobile City Council and County Commission President Connie Hudson to give SFA an idea of features the community desires at the facility and what events and activities could keep it sustainable.
Though some of those questions were answered, others were asked about how the facility would be operated and how it would compete with other facilities just across Mobile Bay.
“With new facilities in Baldwin County and their proximity to the beach, how are we — being inland — going to complete with a facility in Foley to get tournaments here?” Mobile City Council President Gina Gregory asked.
Evan Eleff, who led the meeting for SFA, said there would be competition from other locations, and said the newly-constructed, 16-field complex in Foley would have a scalability Mobile’s facility wouldn’t be able match.
However, Eleff said Mobile’s established infrastructure — particularly near its planned location at I-65 and I-10 intersection — gives the proposed facility a distinct advantage.
“What’s important to people, as much as anything else, is the infrastructure and the support services they can get. They want those close to the facilities,” Eleff said. “The advantage of Mobile is its proximity to restaurants, hotels and entertainment.”
Ultimately, how to utilize those advantages will be a component of the 12-week marketability study SFA presents to the county, the results of which are expected sometime in May.
The other big question — at least among the stakeholders at last week’s meetings — was who would run and finance the day-to-day operations of the facility.
At this early stage in the project’s development, only one thing seems sure about the soccer complex’s future. If it’s constructed, the facility will likely be run by a private entity and not the county.
During Thursday’s meeting, Hudson said Mobile County “doesn’t have the personnel or the experience to manage something like this, and would “have to reach outside” for the facility’s maintenance and operations. Mobile City Councilor Bess Rich made similar statements about the city’s ability to maintain a soccer complex.
SFA has a sister organization known as Sports Facilities Management that, as its name suggests, manages many but not all of the facilities SFA has built across the country.
During a February meeting, the company’s owner Eric Sullivan was asked about SFM’s management fee, which he said could range anywhere from “$9,000 to $30,000 a month” depending on the size the facility. At that point Hudson told Lagniappe the county had no plans to partner with SFM, but didn’t rule out the possibility either.
Chad Harrelson, the director of the Mobile United Futbol Club, said the facility would need a full-time professional to recruit, market, organize and oversee tournaments in order to be successful.
“I think anybody who’s been involved with big tournaments will tell you there’s got to be a professional that’s doing it,” Harrelson said. “The facilities that have that management are the ones that continue to be successful year in and year out, while those that don’t usually make a big splash early but ultimately fade away.”
Harrelson said the clubs and organizations he’s involved with could bring in at least two or three tournaments themselves, which includes the Southern Shootout — a 64-team tournament hosted by St. Paul’s Episcopal School that recently has been played in Baldwin County.
Harrelson said other tournaments could easily be held in Mobile because of the benefit of having 10-fields in one location as well as other fields in the general area that could be utilized. Such fields include facilities at the University of South Alabama and Herndon Park, where Mobile is planning to spend $1.6 million in upgrades this year.
Harrelson also said the facilities across the bay in Foley and Orange Beach could prove to be allies as well as competition. He mentioned the possibility of large tournaments similar to those held in and around Atlanta that could utilize and benefit all three facilities.
Others like Tyler Kerns, of the Mobile Swim Association, said the facility could also attract tournaments for swimming, lacrosse, rugby and other sports.
In a master plan for the project released last November, Neel-Schaffer Inc. gave a $12 million estimate for an indoor swimming facility or “aquatic center” included in the project. Because the nearest similar facilities are in Auburn and Birmingham, Kerns said Mobile could easily become a new hotspot for regional and statewide swim meets.
With the various plans to utilize the soccer complex, Harrelson seemed to think the biggest obstacle would be convincing taxpayers of how valuable the space could be to the county.
“No place in the country is really known for wanting to raise taxes, but certainly Alabama is not a place that’s very easy to do,” Harrelson said. “We need to be able to sell the need and show the people it’s not all taxpayer dollars, that there are also these public-private partnerships that are going to help fund it. We’ll have to have a plan going forward on how we’ll do that because a backlash from the constituency can end something like this pretty quickly.”
Eleff was quick to say there’s been no determination on exactly what the financing structure will be or what levels of public and private funds would be used. Previously, Hudson said the results of SFA’s study would give the county the data it needs to pursue private investments for the project.
No local tax increases have been discussed related to the project, with the exception of the county’s lodging tax. In December, discussions about a two percent increase in the tax revealed an almost nonexistent support from the Mobile Area Lodging Association.
Members of MALA, including current president Kent Blackinton, attended one of the multiple meetings hosted by SFA last Wednesday and Thursday. However, they’ve since been unavailable for comment.