It seems my until-now-secret dream of having Sandy Bear lift me — arms outstretched — high over his head as we ice skate along Mobile’s working waterfront now has a shot at becoming reality. Mayor Sandy Stimpson announced last week his administration had sealed the deal for an actual ice skating rink in Cooper Riverside Park from Nov. 12 to Jan. 12.
While I’m not sure if the mayor will allow me to figure skate with his mascot bear, I still welcome what should be a well-attended attraction to downtown for the holiday season. I know some are griping about spending money on an ice skating rink, but at only $132,000, it should be easy for the city to get a good bit of that back, especially if Sandy Bear is on hand for skate rentals and some triple axels.
It was a good week for Stimpson on the “quality of life” front. In addition to the holiday ice skating rink, he was also able to announce a preliminary deal to bring a cruise ship back to our abandoned cruise terminal. The particulars of the deal aren’t finished or public yet, but hopefully we’re talking about something that will eventually offer a long-term tenant for the terminal so it doesn’t have to subsist on sock hops and Mardi Gras parties.
Both of these announcements have one thing in common besides providing Sandy Bear with quality recreational opportunities: They are aimed at improving life in downtown Mobile. Life along the waterfront in particular.
With the skating rink, all of a sudden Cooper Riverside Park becomes, at least for a little while, something more than a place to visit with the homeless. And a cruise ship brings back hundreds of people walking through downtown and adds the dimension of giving the GulfQuest Maritime Museum the kick it’s going to need. A planned redesign of Water Street should help keep the momentum going down there as well.
As a city we’ve put a lot of effort over the past couple of decades into trying to turn our downtown into someplace that’s attractive not only to locals but out-of-towners as well, and overall the result has been good. Yes, we still need far more residents downtown before some of the requisite stores, restaurants and services will totally transform LoDa. Or maybe it’s that we need all the stores, restaurants and services before more people will move down there. One or the other. No matter what, more people need to live downtown for it to be truly fantastic.
One key to getting people downtown might not be so obvious, but I believe it is critical to making the downtown Mobilian’s quality of life one that will be the envy of the lame burgs we’re always checking out over our shoulder — water access. As it currently stands, there’s just not a tremendous amount of access downtown to commune with the river in any natural way. Cooper Park offers a good view but not much in the way of splashing or fishing.
While there’s not an easy solution to that issue right inside the Hank Aaron Loop, an answer isn’t that far away. The defunct University of South Alabama golf course currently sits for sale just a few miles away at Brookley and offers the city an amazing opportunity to provide a quality of life improvement that would turn us back into the kind of waterfront community we were a century ago.
Right now politicians are trying to decide how to spend millions in money from the BP oil spill. There are discussions of building soccer complexes and funding museums, as well as building convention centers and new roads or filling ditches. So little of what is being discussed has anything to do with changing our relationship with the saltwater environment that was damaged.
Before any of the city’s BP money is earmarked off for things of dubious environmental and lifestyle impact, we ought to make a serious run at buying a chunk of that golf course and putting a park and big public pier there. I’m talking Fairhope Pier big, too.
Those who haven’t seen this stretch of land probably would have a hard time believing something like this still exists inside the city limits. It is pristine land full of moss-covered oaks along a fairly sandy stretch of beach right on Mobile Bay. How any discussion of what to do with BP money doesn’t begin with getting that property I can’t imagine.
A local group has been working for the past couple of years to get some interest in creating a park in this spot, but they’ve been mostly ignored. Now that some of the money is coming in, though, I hope they’ll get a friendly ear.
It’s hard to imagine there aren’t really places for the average Mobilian to go and fish on their famous bay. Yes, there are parks here and there, but most are not right on the bay and by and large people end up going to the Causeway to stand alongside the road and the whizzing traffic to fish. A great big pier stretching out into the bay would offer so much in the way of fishing, picnicking, star-gazing or even disposing of unwanted relatives.
A short shuttle from downtown could offer quick waterfront access to those who choose the LoDa lifestyle, and all of a sudden you have a new amenity to offer them. Of course, the rest of the city also would no longer have to head to the Causeway or Dauphin Island to feed grandma to the alligators, either.
I know the temptation is a tough one when you’re a politician staring at a lump of “free” money. The first thought is probably “who can I make happy?” and it surely goes against most political instincts to push something that will wind up in someone else’s district, but wouldn’t it be something to look back 20 years from now and be able to say we took some of that money and built something really great that’s still here when the ice thaws?