This week, the city had a community meeting at Williamson High School to discuss the future of Ladd Stadium. The meeting, which was highly contentious at times, seemed to be more about sentimentality than practicality, and what should have been a discussion about what to do with a 70-year-old stadium that will soon, without question, have a much younger and attractive rival on the USA campus, turned into an emotional argument with racial and socioeconomic undertones.
Unfortunately, these two issues that have become intertwined should have never been in the first place.
As most everyone knows by now, the city is considering giving the University of South Alabama $500,000 per year for 20 years for a total of $10 million to build a stadium on the USA campus. The county has also been asked to contribute but they have not publicly discussed numbers. The stadium is estimated to cost a total of $72 million to construct.
In turn, USA would give the city $2.5 million to do whatever it wants with Ladd. The city has floated the idea of tearing it down and building a brand-new but smaller, 5,000-seat stadium that would require much less maintenance and be better suited for the high school teams that would still play there.
Many at the meeting expressed how they had been to the Senior Bowl every year and how they loved walking over from their houses or even watching the scoreboard from their yards.
I had friends who lived on West Street years ago and they would have an epic Senior Bowl party every year that I never missed. After they moved, my friends and I would always “tent hop” and then head to the “World’s Largest Senior Bowl Party” at Callaghan’s. I get the sentimentality of having it at Ladd and near downtown.
I can also understand how the African-American community must feel. The stadium is located in a majority-black community and, as many said at the meeting, it has a been a big part of their culture for decades, hosting Senior Bowl, Dollar General Bowl and Gulf Coast Classic tailgates in their yards over the years. Now, it must seem like the powers-that-be are swooping in and using some of their taxpayer money to move their stadium to a whiter part of Mobile. I get how that is the perception and how that does not seem fair.
But that is not the reality.
The reality is USA is going to build its stadium no matter what, because that is the next logical step in their football program. That is going to determine Ladd’s fate, and it really doesn’t matter what the mayor, City Council, stadium board or citizens who live around it say or do.
So let’s think about that fate. What is going to happen almost immediately once the new USA stadium is completed? There will be a brand-new, 25,000-capacity stadium with the latest, state-of-the-art training facilities and indoor and outdoor practice fields. The city does not have the money to renovate and maintain Ladd to the level that would be competitive against this new facility.
So if you don’t think the Dollar General Bowl and Senior Bowl won’t go to USA almost immediately, you are kidding yourselves. Ladd’s decrepit condition is the biggest thing you hear the NFL coaches, scouts and national sports media complain about every year at the Senior Bowl. When I was riding in the elevator to the press boxes one year with some ESPN folks, they were making jokes about how they thought they were going to get stuck in the elevator (I was scared of that, too!) and just how low-rent the whole place was. They didn’t know I was listening to them, but I was embarrassed for us.
I wouldn’t even be surprised if the Gulf Coast Classic was eventually wooed over to USA, too. Nice facilities and a campus full of students who can walk from their dorms and make your game nearly or completely sold out is pretty enticing.
USA knows this, too. And they know this move will essentially kill Ladd, which is part of the reason they offered this money to use in repurposing it.
“When we start playing games at home, on campus, it will have an impact on the community,” said Nick Lawkis, associate director of USA’s office of governmental relations, at a recent Mobile City Council meeting.
“So we’re saying, here’s $2.5 million to help the community with whatever enhancements they would like to do with Ladd. If not, so be it, we don’t have to. We don’t have to do it. We’re just saying, as a part of this deal, if you would like $2.5 million to help renovate or spruce it up, whatever you’d like to do, we’re trying to contribute to leave the community in a better place than when we got there when we leave. … We’d like to contribute a little bit to what we’ve called our home stadium for the last nine years.”
So if we don’t take their money and we just leave it as is, what happens then?
We can have four high schools play their games at a 40,000-capacity stadium that they will never, ever fill, and the city will continue to perform the minimum amount of maintenance on a stadium that is way too large for what it is now hosting. And it will continue to deteriorate.
Or you could let the city tear part of it down and build a nice, new stadium with a smaller footprint that could possibly include community meeting spaces, walking tracks, practice football or soccer fields, basketball courts, any number of things to make it a much greater asset to the community than it is now and certainly in the years to come.
Now, do I think it’s still a valid debate on how much money the city and county contribute to the project, if anything? Absolutely.
It’s 100 percent true that the city and county will benefit from the economic impact a new stadium like this will bring in. But obviously one could argue the city could just take $2.5 million from its own budget and do something with Ladd and save itself the $7.5 million going to USA. But, of course, the university is already a huge economic driver in this community and only continues to grow. And because of this, I do think the city and county should contribute something to this project. Should it be this exact deal? I’m not sure yet.
I do think it would give taxpayers more comfort to know the university was doing all it could possibly do in private fundraising through bigwig alumni donors and especially with the USA Foundation, which has tons of money (a reported $369 million in net assets), but says they can’t give money to the stadium because it’s “out of the scope of their mission,” which puts some bad-tasting South in the collective taxpayer’s mouth. Because, hey, is it really part of the city and county’s “mission” to help build a stadium either?
The university should really try and work something out with the foundation on this. It would look much, much better if they were contributing to this as well.
The foundation says its mission “is to support the academic programs of the university like student scholarships or professorships. The endowment is designated and restricted for specific purposes, and the support of a stadium is really outside of that scope.”
Like it or not, having a football team and stadium helps attract the kind of students and professors they want to “support,” so they should really reconsider.
We can fight and fuss and let this matter divide our community all we want. But it’s all for naught. USA will build a stadium. That move will be detrimental to Ladd. The writing is on the wall, but we can at least control the story that is written. And getting a brand-new, smaller but nicer stadium with many other new amenities really seems to be a much happier ending than watching a stadium that we have all known and loved over the years die a slow and painful death.