Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Atlanta’s relatively new Mercedes-Benz Dome for the first time.
My wife and I escorted a couple of 14-year-old “Swifties” to watch the second of Taylor Swift’s two-night “Reputation Tour” stand in the stadium where the next Super Bowl will be played. The place was packed and fortunately I wasn’t the only old man “dad dancing” along with the music. My daughter, Ursula, has made sure over the past several years that I’m intimately familiar with almost every song T-Swift has ever recorded.
In addition to the $40 T-shirts, one of the main attractions for me was getting to check out Atlanta’s massive new football stadium, with its strange camera shutter hole in the roof ringed by a massive circular video screen. The place is big, for sure, but I’m not sure it’s quite on the same level as the Dallas Cowboys stadium, which has more of a strip club feel. Um, I mean from what I’ve been told about strip clubs.
The big Benz still looks unfinished inside — lots of dangling electrical wires and exposed sewage pipes that don’t look so much industrial as they do redneck. But what do you expect for just $1.6 billion?
Outside the stadium is a construction zone where its predecessor, the Georgia Dome, once stood. Built in 1992 for $214 million, it only lasted 25 years. It was blown up last November and the spot will become a 13-acre green space.
On the way out of town, I noticed the old Turner Field, onetime home of the Braves baseball team. The team built a $400 million stadium about 20 miles outside of town a few years ago and Turner — a spry 22 years old right now — was sold to Georgia State University for $30 million. Turner was built in 1996 for $209 million.
All these stadium moves reminded me a bit of what’s going on in Mobile, albeit on a far larger scale. In the past 26 years, Atlanta has built two baseball stadiums and two football stadiums for a total cost of about $2.2 billion, if my math is correct. And then there’s another $30 million going to convert of one of those baseball stadiums for football.
Meanwhile, in Mobile we’re struggling with a soon-to-be empty Hank Aaron Stadium, a 70-year-old Ladd-Peebles football stadium and a plan for a new 25,000-seat football stadium at the University of South Alabama. Perhaps this seems Podunk by comparison, but most cities struggle with stadium issues at one level or another.
“The Hank” is just 21 years old and cost $8 million to build. Ladd was built back when you could still get a Coke for a nickel, so it’s hard to really compare costs, but it’s had about $10 million in renovations over the past 20 years. USA expects their new stadium to run about $72 million. We’re obviously not in the big leagues, relatively speaking, when it comes to sports facility costs.
But that doesn’t mean how we spend our money isn’t important. Right now the big argument is about whether the city and county should each donate $10 million over 20 years to USA in order to help them build that new stadium. On the city’s part, that deal would come with a $2.5 million lump-sum kickback from USA, so the bottom line is only $7.5 million.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson has made it clear he thinks this is the wisest deal for the city in terms of getting out of the stadium business, as he has expressed a desire to tear down Ladd and replace it with a less maintenance-heavy, smaller stadium for high school football. But that part of his plan is having a tough time getting around the end.
Whether it’s nostalgia for Ladd, the desire of some to keep their fiefdom or the misguided notion that this ancient stadium is going to somehow compete to keep the Senior Bowl and Dollar General Bowl once USA’s stadium is complete, there is a sizeable group that wants to hold onto Ladd — in essence to make Mobile a two football stadium town.
Personally I think the concept of giving USA $500,000 each year to help make the payment on the bond used to build the new stadium is unnecessary since they will almost certainly build it regardless. But the $2.5 million lump sum coming back makes the deal much more attractive to the mayor if he’s able to use it to reduce the city’s financial exposure from Ladd, which Stimpson says will cost the city tens of millions over the next 20 years. Keeping the stadium, however, doesn’t seem to accomplish that goal.
There’s still a lot of wrangling going on, and as of Tuesday the votes weren’t there to give USA the money. Behind the scenes, the City Council is still talking about a big, new renewal plan for both the Hillsdale and Maysville parts of town as a way of swaying enough recalcitrant councilors and keeping Ladd.
But the idea of dumping money into a 70-year-old stadium so it can ultimately end up as a 40,000-seat high school stadium makes about as much sense as hiring Omarosa as an adviser. Maysville and the city would be better served by a smaller, lower-maintenance stadium on the same spot. The Senior Bow and Dollar General Bowl are bound to make a beeline for USA once their stadium is finished.
We have to think about the ultimate goal. Does it make any sense to have Ladd just sitting there getting older and more costly in order to host a few high school games? I know there are abstract ideas for other events, but they’ll need to be significant enough to justify needing that big a stadium.
Meanwhile, we’ll soon have an empty baseball stadium to go along with an ancient civic center that’s already narrowly dodged the wrecking ball once. So by 2020, city leaders could be staring at a lightly used 72-year-old football stadium, a lightly used 56-year-old auditorium and a teamless 23-year-old baseball park.
What I hope is that by 2020 visitors can drive through Mobile and see the clever ways we’ve repurposed these municipal albatrosses with an eye toward the future.