By Sharman Egan/Contributing Writer
If you still question whether Mobile is undergoing a renaissance, try leaving for a few weeks. That’s what I did over the holidays. When I arrived back in town on Jan. 5, it was as if Santa had swept through town with a sleigh full of gifts. Here are some of the treats he delivered in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
The city’s vision for tourism — the Mayor’s Initiative on Tourism announced in September 2015 – is coming together downtown, with new attractions just in time for Mardi Gras. Perhaps the biggest news is the opening of the long-awaited Mardi Gras Park (pictured above). When I heard it would have eight statues, I pictured a bunch of old men on horses, cast in gray metal. Yawn. I was pleased to see a rainbow of figures highlighting the traditions of our favorite party. It promises to be a prime spot for catching moonpies.
The city debuted the Celebration Trail with fanfare. The idea is to solve a major problem: the awkward trek from the cruise ship terminal to downtown. But it seems more like the time Kevin unwrapped a copy of “The Last of the Mohicans” from his aunt for Christmas, unlike the fun toys his siblings received.
There’s a huge “Welcome to Mobile” mural at the Interstate 10 overpass, but the trail ends there. There’s no sign telling you to turn right on Royal Street, inviting you into Fort Conde, marking the Mardi Gras Park or pointing to the Exploreum. Signage for the Visitors Center and hop-on, hop-off trolley was baffling. I came across two separate couples who were confused and disgruntled.
The city plans additions, including more murals, landscaping and an archway at Royal and Dauphin streets. In the meantime, they need to work on the signs.
The Mardi Gras Trail opened in December. Created by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, it features seven spots in downtown that track the history of Mobile Mardi Gras from 1840 to 1940. The society’s website offers guided tours of the trail and a map for self-guided tours. But again, signage is needed directing visitors from Royal Street to the start of the trail.
The Visitors Center moved from Fort Conde to the History Museum, a more visible location across from Mardi Gras Park, and is now managed by Visit Mobile.
Fort Conde is now managed by Activation Management, the folks who brought us the wildly popular Gulf Coast Duckboats, and the fort has been renamed the Colonial Fort of Mobile. The new management promises to transform the fort into a world-class destination and event venue with concerts, a fife and drum corps and demonstrations of colonial trades (according to its Facebook page, it’s looking to hire wig makers, gunsmiths and confectioners. among others).
Changes are already evident. The old lady has had a facelift, with freshly painted gates and fencing and newly pressure-washed brick and woodwork.
Developers of the Hilton Garden Inn announced The Back Lot, a food truck court on St. Francis Street behind the hotel. It will feature a rotating schedule of food trucks with power (no noisy generators!), picnic tables with shade, fans and lights. Food trucks will be onsite for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late nights. A schedule will be posted to The Back Lot’s Facebook page. It was to open in late January but when I drove by on Jan. 25, I saw little progress.
Across Bienville Square from the hotel, the MoonPie General Store opened Dec. 30 in the lobby of the RSA Trustmark Bank building, just in time for the MoonPie Drop.
Santa even brought cash to Mobile. The Southern Rail Commission awarded the city a $125,000 grant for a master plan and architectural designs for a new Amtrak station near Cooper Riverside Park. Maybe next Christmas he’ll bring us a train.
The jolly old elf didn’t forget midtown. The dog park at Public Safety Memorial Park opened with separate sections for large and small pups, and dozens of camellia bushes that will be stunning in a few years.
All these changes in just six weeks, and even more are in store. Here are some updates on the news since New Year’s:
• GulfQuest will reopen to the public on Feb. 22. The city promises more fun with a new traveling exhibit, “SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure,” plus lower ticket prices and free parking. The museum will be open Wednesday through Sunday. (Now if they’ll just work on the marketing … the GulfQuest web site still says it’s “closed temporarily to the public” and I found no announcement on its Facebook page or the city web site).
• Eugene’s Monkey Bar & Grill opened in the new Hilton Garden Inn with a front “porch” overlooking Bienville Square. If you’re wondering who Eugene is, Google “Eugene Walter” or grab a copy of “Milking the Moon” from Bienville Books. Mobile’s favorite raconteur is finally getting the respect he deserves.
• Chuck’s Fish opened at 551 Dauphin St., featuring fresh Gulf seafood straight from Harbor Docks in Destin.
• Roosters Latin American Food opened at 211 Dauphin St., offering Tex-Mex made with fresh, local ingredients.
• Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma opened in Legacy Village on Jan. 27.