Photo |  Daniel Anderson, Lagniappe

After what appeared to be last-minute negotiations Tuesday, the Mobile City Council once again delayed a vote on a proposed $10 million contribution to the University of South Alabama’s on-campus stadium project.

Private discussions between Mayor Sandy Stimpson, USA President Tony Waldrop and three councilors delayed the start of the board’s regular 10:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday by more than 20 minutes. Despite the talks, councilors still couldn’t get enough votes to approve the proposal to provide USA $500,000 annually for the next 20 years.

In comments made during the meeting, Council Vice President Levon Manzie suggested the five affirmative votes needed to pass the item did not exist.

“I see you all dressed in red, shaking your heads and rolling your eyes, but you’d be shaking your heads and rolling your eyes at the decision if we had voted today,” he said, referring to the dozens of USA supporters in the room. “There are still some very serious moving parts and it’s going to take us seven more days to reach a consensus on all of those very important parts. It’s where we are.”

Councilman Fred Richardson said the delay means there’s still hope a deal can be reached.

“We are all hopeful,” he said. “We’re working now to keep hope alive.”The letter of intent, or LOI, proposes that in exchange for the city’s $10 million contribution, the city would receive $2.5 million from USA to “renovate” Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which currently hosts USA’s home football games

Photo |  Daniel Anderson , Lagniappe

The Mobile City Council is at odds over the future of the 70-year-old Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which the mayor’s office claims will need as much as $33 million in deferred maintenance over the next 20 years.

Approval of the nonbinding LOI would mean the city could have a contract with USA within 90 days, Stimpson said.

The LOI states that funds for the stadium would come from economic development funds, but Stimpson to this point has declined to have an economic impact study done on the proposed stadium, despite some councilors requesting one before a vote.

Stimpson said there are concerns with the length of time an economic impact study would take, but he didn’t rule one out in advance of contract negotiations with USA.


Community deal

Meanwhile, Manzie and Councilwoman Gina Gregory led a late charge to encourage the city to focus resources on the two neighborhoods that would be most affected by the council’s move — Maysville and Hillsdale.

Under the initiative, at least $10 million would be pumped into those aforementioned communities impacted by the stadiums. The details are still vague and no proposal has been presented to the entire council yet, but Manzie believes the plan could consist of a mixture of state oil and gas money, Community Development Block Grants and Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds.

“We believe that if we can spend $10 million over 20 years on a new stadium, then we should work just as hard to invest in those communities,” Manzie said of his initiative.

The plan also includes more funding for Ladd, in addition to the $2.5 million promised by USA in the LOI. Among other things, the proposed funding would be used for a new assessment of the stadium, even though it was assessed as part of a citywide facilities survey in 2016.

Part of the new plan became clearer at Tuesday’s meeting, with Stimpson announcing a proposal to use CDBG funds to pay for a study of Ladd. The city would hire a firm to do the analysis, with results in hand by June 1, 2019.

From there, Stimpson said, residents would have input on moving forward. It’s too early in the process to decide what should happen to Ladd, Stimpson said. He added that it should be a community decision.

“I don’t think what should happen to Ladd should come from the 9th and 10th floors,” Stimpson said. “We should probably have a planner come in, someone unbiased and maybe more objective. That’ll take time.”

The LOI provides the city the $2.5 million from USA, but it must be used within three years so that it gives the city the time needed to move forward, Stimpson said. Stimpson’s office believes it’s better to get community buy-in with money in the bank than it would be without it.

It’s also important to focus funds on investing in Maysville, the mayor acknowledged, because the neighborhood will likely grow over the next two decades due to the possibility of moving the regional airport to the Brookley Aeroplex. Stimpson said Maysville was thriving when Brookley was an active Air Force base and can thrive again.


The debate

The council’s action continues a month-long debate about not only what would happen to Ladd, but what would happen to the community around it.

For proponents of the plan, the city’s contribution to USA’s on-campus stadium will help create a new economic driver and secure a modern home for the city’s two collegiate bowl games. For those against it, the contribution is an unnecessary gift to a state-funded educational institution and signals yet another cultural abandonment of some of the city’s oldest communities.

For Mayor Stimpson, the $10 million contribution to USA means receiving $2.5 million to refurbish the 70-year-old stadium. Stimpson added that an on-campus stadium at USA would strengthen the city’s position relative to the National Football League and the Senior Bowl.

“I’m concerned about having the money to refurbish, or rebuild and maintain Ladd over the long term,” he said. “I”m concerned about us fulfilling the desires of the NFL.”

Stimpson has argued the cost to maintain Ladd will continue to increase over time — estimating $33 million over the next 20 years. He has argued that is much less than the $10 million the city would contribute to a new stadium. His initial plan was to demolish Ladd and use USA’s $2.5 million to build a smaller, multi-use stadium and park in its place.

But Ann Davis, chairwoman of the Ladd board, said she doesn’t believe Stimpson’s maintenance figure is accurate. The board believes Ladd could be refurbished back to its former glory with roughly $2 million, she said. Davis said she doesn’t understand why Stimpson and USA are moving so quickly on the proposal.

“I think South should have their own stadium, but I don’t think they’re ready,” she said. “If they were they wouldn’t be doing this song and dance.”

She is against the city contributing to the facility because the city “has so many needs.” She also doubts a new stadium would be a much more popular venue than Ladd.

“I’m thinking if they build it, the first couple games it’ll be packed,” she said. “After that, it won’t be. I just don’t see it yet.”

Councilman John Williams agrees, adding that “Mobile likes new stuff.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, Williams compared the proposed stadium to USA’s Mitchell Center arena. He argued that an economic impact study should be completed first. Williams, a Jaguars basketball season ticket holder, said that while the same economic impact arguments were made at the time for the arena, very few fans attend games there now.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re by yourself,” he said. “It feels empty. It feels like it’s only you, the cheerleaders and the band.”

Instead of backing the new stadium, Williams suggested using the $500,000 per year expenditure on public safety or some other need.

“What could we do with an additional $500,000 for policing? I don’t know, I’m not an expert, but if I was the chief I could figure it out,” he said. “If I was the mayor, I would tell people I’m serious about becoming the safest city.”

Opponents have argued an on-campus stadium at USA would move tourists out of the downtown area and farther west. Manzie said he’s had complaints from some downtown business owners, but Stimpson doesn’t believe the proposed stadium would have a negative impact on downtown, as Senior Bowl scouts as well as Dollar General Bowl coaches and players will continue to stay at downtown hotels and eat at downtown restaurants.

Acting Chief of Staff and Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said the USA games themselves do not have a tremendous impact on downtown establishments. He said most food-and-drink purchases associated with the games are made at the stadium or for tailgate parties.

Carol Hunter, spokeswoman with Downtown Mobile Alliance, agrees.

“We’re still the center of the hospitality universe for those games,” Hunter said of downtown. “Ultimately, those games and USA are moving no matter what.”


Two stadiums

Councilwoman Bess Rich, Manzie and even Williams have made comments to the effect that the city could support two stadiums, even if Ladd’s size isn’t altered in some way.

In fact, Manzie said he believes a renovated Ladd wouldn’t compete with a stadium at USA, but could compete with regional facilities for big events in the future.

“Events couldn’t [schedule] there before because of USA, the Senior Bowl and the Dollar General Bowl,” Manzie said. “It’s now up to the leadership of the stadium. I believe there are enough athletic events around the country … go out and tell its story.”

Ladd has had past opportunities it couldn’t cash in on due to USA’s football schedule, Davis said. Stadium management had been contacted by the Southwestern Athletic Conference about hosting its football championship game. Davis said the board wanted to engage SWAC, but couldn’t because the Jaguars schedule had not been released and they didn’t known when other games could be played.

Davis also mentioned the potential for semiprofessional football being played at a renovated Ladd in the future. The Ladd board deserves the opportunity to help set the stadium’s future, she said.

“I’m not saying put $50 million into Ladd and I know we need to work, but we’re up to the challenge,” Davis said.

Currently, the city gives the stadium board $200,000 per year through a performance contract. The city’s contribution along with the revenue from various events allows the stadium to operate on a day-to-day basis. While funding will become more of a challenge if and when USA and the bowl games leave, stadium manager Vic Knight recently told councilors the stadium could still thrive after 2020 because expenses would be way down.

Williams believes the city could support two stadiums “if we really had to.”

Despite USA officials’ insistence the on-campus stadium could not be built without public funds, there is a growing sense inside Government Plaza the school would go it alone if need be. Stimpson and Williams have gone on record with that belief.

“This whole ‘they won’t do it without us,’ I don’t buy that,” Williams said. “They’re going to find a way.”


County move

USA has also asked the Mobile County Commission to chip in on the stadium.

“I think right now, we want to see what’s happening with the city and how they’re dealing with the Ladd Stadium situation,” County Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “That is an area of concern for us, particularly in how it will impact the schools that have their home games there and what will happen going forward. I, for one, would like some reassurances that they’re going to have a place to have their games once this transpires.”

The commission also does not seem prepared to give USA the same $10 million contribution USA requested.

“I don’t think $10 million is too much for the city. I think it’s too much for the county,” Commissioner Jerry Carl said. “We fund a lot of programs that the city doesn’t have to, especially in the school system itself. I hope the city does find a way of funding it and give the opportunity to come and start voting on it also.”