County Commissioner Connie Hudson’s longtime GOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL of getting a 10-field, tournament-ready soccer complex built on land near interstates 10 and 65 was blocked by fellow commissioner Merceria Ludgood on Monday.
Though their other commission colleague, Jerry Carl, had always been a staunch opponent of Hudson’s pet — some say vanity — project, Ludgood had voted in favor of several measures and studies that moved it forward over the last several years.
But when it came down to a vote on purchasing the land and funding the first phase of construction via a $20 million loan, with no money from private investors, other governmental bodies or ability to use BP settlement funds, Ludgood just couldn’t pull the trigger.
“In deciding how to vote, I asked myself this question: ‘Is this the most critical need facing the county, such that I would feel compelled to borrow $20 million?’ The answer is no,” Ludgood said.
Hudson said she had not known Ludgood would vote this way and she wished she could have reached this decision sooner, citing all the time and money wasted on it. #Amen
But Ludgood said it had taken her a long time to come to this decision.
So here we are: four years later with a total of $500,000 spent on studies and land options on a complex that will most likely never be built. A half million dollars down the proverbial drain.
And the big question is: Was it ever really wanted by the taxpayers of Mobile County in the first place?
Just anecdotally — talking to numerous people and monitoring news story and social media comments over the years — to me, the enthusiasm for this project seemed tepid at best. Sure, huge soccer fans and families were fired up about it, but they aren’t a huge majority. It was difficult to find an Average Joe Mobilian — maybe someone whose kids had grown out of soccer long ago or was never interested in it in the first place — to feel like this was a good use of taxpayer money.
Even the economic impact argument was a tough sell. First of all, has there ever been a project/event in this town where you couldn’t find an accompanying economic impact study promising riches beyond our wildest dreams? Even on now-failed or failing projects? I’m sure we could read a few of those from a decade or so ago and get a good chuckle. It’s hard to put much stock in them anymore.
Secondly, after the vote, Commissioner Hudson lamented we were going to miss out on all of these tournaments and tax revenue which would continue to go to Baldwin County. But another big question that was always looming with this project was were we ever going to lure them away in the first place? Closer proximity to the beach and more entertainment options is a hard thing to compete against.
Furthermore, when the lodging association, which would have seemingly benefited the most from this, couldn’t even lend its support, that was a huge red flag (or, should I say, card in this case)?
Kent Blackinton, who spoke on behalf of the Mobile Area Lodging Association, said while he had no doubt the project would fill some rooms, they thought there were more efficient uses of the money (#ohsnap). Hudson had proposed repaying the loan with money from the county’s lodging tax revenue. Blackinton reminded the commission that was supposed to be used on promoting existing attractions.
In that same vein, Ludgood thought the money would be better spent on existing park and recreational centers that have needed upgrading for some time, as well as for potential economic development projects that could bring jobs to her district, both of which she described as far bigger concerns for her constituents.
Let me just say, I do see the economic value in some athletic facilities. The Mobile Tennis Center is a perfect example of a great revenue generator for the city. But I don’t think it is an apples-to-apples comparison to a soccer complex.
Tennis is a lifetime sport. You can bring in tournaments full of 7-year-olds to 70-year-olds. And the facilities can be and are enjoyed by that Average Joe Mobilian. I have many friends who have never picked up a racket in their lives who have done so for the first time in their 30s and 40s and have taken a beginning class out at the center. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario with the soccer complex.
And the Mobile Tennis Center has been one of the best facilities of its kind for a long time. Even shinier and fancier new facilities would have a tough time pulling tournaments away from it. These soccer complexes seem to be the latest fad — like there could almost be a glut of them in a few years because every city thinks it’s going to be a magic moneymaker for them — and we would be late to the game (in this case, like that part where you think it’s supposed to be over but the clock keeps running and you have no idea when it’s going to stop. I forget what that’s called but it makes me crazy. )
Anyway, with questionable economic impact and the lack of ability and/or desire for the vast majority of Mobile County residents to utilize this facility for very long (while their kids are playing) or at all, I think Commissioner Ludgood made the right decision.
But I think this whole ordeal really once again shines a light on the need for a five-person commission. A three-person commission puts too much power in the hands of too few. It is just too easy for one person to decide they want some project — like this one — and convince one other person to go along with it for awhile and then, a half million dollars later, that same single person can kill it.
This same scenario could play out over and over again every time a current or future commissioner falls in love with the latest trend in quality of life, tax-revenue generating projects. I’m sure commissioners of yesteryear thought public golf courses would rake in the revenue for generations to come and look what is happening to those across the country.
At the very least, if they are going to propose multi-million-dollar projects, especially ones that are not necessities, they should hold a referendum to see if this is how the residents want their tax dollars spent BEFORE they start down the path of paying for a bevy of studies and options on land.
If there were referendums on these types of projects and the public supported them, it would be a lot less political and a lot less messy, not to be confused with Messi (OK, I have now used every soccer reference I know, so it’s time to wrap this up). But it would be more about the will of the people rather than the will of a single politician.
And really, shouldn’t that always be the GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLL?