Photo | Lagniappe
Activation Management inked a deal with the History Museum of Mobile to manage Fort Conde in 2016. Today, both sides are questioning its value.
When Activation Management took control of Mobile’s Fort Conde in 2016 and subsequently made it the launch point for its Gulf Coast Ducks business, the public-private partnership was pitched as a relief for the History Museum of Mobile and touted a list of ideas for re-energizing the fort as a tourist attraction. A little more than two years later, it appears the deal has been a disappointment for both sides.
Board Chairman Greg Reynolds told Lagniappe Monday that when the idea of the Fort of Colonial Mobile was first presented to the board it seemed like a “win-win,” but that is currently not the case.
“It was not the best decision we could’ve made,” Reynolds said. “The board’s focus was on the museum and we didn’t have the employees, or financial capacity to do a lot with the fort at the time. When the idea was presented, we felt we’d get a percentage of the visitors from the duck boats and the fort, but sadly that did not happen.”
Instead, Activation Management opened a restaurant — Sylvia’s Biscuits and Poboys — in part of the space and began renting the fort out for private parties without the board’s knowledge or consent, Reynolds said.
“At no time were we told they would be renting the fort out,” Reynolds said.
Grant Zarzour, co-owner of Activation Management, said this is the first time they’ve heard the board had an issue with the event rentals, adding they’re not in violation of the lease. Reynolds said the renting out of the fort directly competes with the museum’s attempt to do the same thing.
Under the terms of the agreement, which are being made public for the first time since the deal was inked more than two years ago, Activation Management pays no rent for the facility, but must purchase and maintain a variety of insurance coverages in various amounts. The agreement has drawn the scorn of some downtown restaurateurs, who have complained that the city has essentially given Sylvia’s a rent-free space from which to compete for business.
Zarzour told Lagniappe while the company pays no rent on the facility, it also receives no funding from the city for the operation of the fort. The company pays utilities, staffing, landscaping and maintenance on the building, he said.
In contrast, the museum board receives a performance contract of more than $1 million, a “nominal” portion of which used to go to fort operations, Reynolds said. Zarzour questioned why the board received the same amount of money if they no longer operate the fort.
There also appears to be some dispute between the sides over how much money Activation Management has spent on the fort. Zarzour said they have spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on renovations, including painting and the replacement of “rotten” ceiling tiles.
In contrast, Reynolds said the board used money from the sale of the parking lot next to the Mobile Carnival Museum and other funds to pour $250,000 into renovations at the fort in 2013 and 2014.
“I would be shocked if they spent that kind of money,” Reynolds said of the work Activation Management did.
Zarzour admitted running the replica fort built in 1976 is “quite a loser” for the company.
“That’s what’s even harder to kind of swallow, you know, but from the outside I can see how it looks, but we are currently trying to make a city-owned building better,” Zarzour said. “[So] that it’s more attractive for a tourist to come through, to make our city look better, and we’re losing quite a bit of money here.”
Zarzour told Lagniappe his motivation for the fort and some of the other entities they’re involved in is to help make Mobile a better place for the future. How long Activation will continue running the fort, though, is in question if it continues to lose money, Zarzour said. Any synergy between the fort and Gulf Coast Ducks ended a little over a month ago when the duck boats stopped running due to a drastic increase in insurance following another duck boat company’s accident in Missouri last year.
While Zarzour holds out enough hope the duck boats will eventually return that Activation continues paying its mechanic’s salary, he also said the amphibious vehicles are currently worth “zero” and sitting in a former city warehouse the company purchased shortly after the ducks made their last trip.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration pushed hard to help make the fort deal a reality, Reynolds said. Former Chief of Staff Colby Cooper even set up meetings between Activation representatives and board representatives at Government Plaza, Reynolds said.
“We were strongly encouraged by the mayor to do this deal,” he said. “I met with the mayor once or twice.”
Zarzour said he was unable to remember how the deal came together or whose idea it was in the first place for Activation to get into the fort management business.
Asked this week about whether the city was still happy about the agreement, city attorney Ricardo Woods said “yes” because it means Fort Conde is no longer just a visitor center.
“In large part because I remember exactly what it was like and we had minimal activity and pamphlets,” he said. … “So right now, you can go over and have field trips, or you can have people show up and give [it] bustling business. The whole point of what we were looking at was to really have Mardi Gras Park, the fort, the history museum with all the issues there and the Exploreum be something where you could have people show up with their families, or a class to show up and have an entire [day].”
When the attraction first opened in January 2016, Scott Tindle, the high-profile face of the fort, the duck boats, Sylvia’s and a litany of other freshly minted ventures, told Lagniappe multiple times the Fort of Colonial Mobile would alternate seasonally between the four powers — Great Britain, Spain, France and the U.S. — that held Fort Conde at a given time in Mobile’s history. The fort would include re-enactors based on these periodic shifts. However, re-enactments have primarily been limited to school field trips and other special events.
“To be very honest with you, our goal from the very beginning was to have re-enactors there every day, all the time,” Zarzour said. “We can’t afford it. When we have field trips come we have a group of re-enactors who come.”
Zarzour said the facility still touts a colonial-era inspired escape room, shooting gallery and photo room, where visitors can dress in colonial garb. The fort also has a colonial shop, he said.
While tickets for the fort aren’t available to purchase online, Zarzour said because the fort is a “self-guided” tour it has come to their attention that visitors tend to buy tickets in person.
However, the fort’s website does offer tickets for an upcoming “princess brunch” at Sylvia’s and two different options for Mardi Gras parade viewing. Online marketing around the fort has primarily focused on Sylvia’s.
Zarzour says it was never their intention to end up running a restaurant and they had a local restaurateur lined up to partner with them in the venture, but that person pulled out after they had already spent money setting up the kitchen. That left Tindle to run the restaurant, something Zarzour says he has never done and would be happy to give up. He said the current situation has left Tindle working without pay to keep Sylvia’s afloat.
“The common theme in what we do … is we want to live here forever and we want our kids to live here and that’s the theme we’re trying to do,” Zarzour said. “If there’s a story here in some of these things, it’s that we’re not very good business people.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).