If you ever wonder just how politics can twist and turn in ways not at all foreseeable during a heated campaign, just think back to when Sandy Stimpson was running for mayor and one of the big knocks against him was his involvement in a (gasp!) Mardi Gras society.
Former Mayor Sam Jones tried to nail him for being a member of a “racially segregated” Mardi Gras organization, and there were plenty who felt such an involvement was going to mean maskers pulling the strings in Government Plaza. Fast forward a year and a half and it’s Stimpson telling those very Mardi Gras societies he may take a wrecking ball to the place where most of them hold their lavish parties.
To put it more succinctly, the mayor whose administration waived just about every rental fee the Mobile Civic Center should have charged and let it become a massive drain on city expenses, warned everyone his opponent was going to give his white buddies special treatment because they all know the same secret handshake. But a little over a year later, Stimpson’s ready to close the doors on the breathtaking financial sinkhole that has become the Mobile Civic Center, a move that will send the Mardi Gras societies looking for new places to throw down.
Hard to have seen that one coming.
It’s rather amazing to be talking about changing what has been a tradition in Mobile for decades — put on a tux, go to the parade, head over to the Civic Center and get hammered. But as the Stimpson Admin pointed out last year, the CC hasn’t exactly been bringing in the bucks. Under Jones pretty much all any organization had to do was write on a loose-leaf piece of notebook paper that they’d like their fee waived and it was done. The idea of actually taking money for use of the publicly owned facility apparently hadn’t made it into Jonesian Accounting Concepts 101.
The Civic Center is right at the center of our pack of deadbeat city buildings — those who theoretically have purposes that should make them at least break-even propositions. CC hangs out in Tin Pan Alley with the empty cruise ship terminal and Hank Aaron Stadium. We’re all hoping they won’t be joined by others in the near future and that maybe some of these derelicts may someday even be able to struggle their way into respectability. But at more than half a century old, looking about as stylish as bellbottom jeans and a rhinestone vest, the CC is in rough shape.
Once you start talking about it losing $1.8 million a year in city money as mostly a home to umpteen Mardi Gras balls, it’s not hard to figure out why those balls and their home are possibly on the chopping block.
But like most decisions in a financially strapped city, this isn’t an easy one. Certainly booting the politically powerful Mardi Gras associations out of their party home comes with some political negatives. Compound that with the fact that both the ballet and opera call the CC home, and you’ve got a lot of people with deep pockets worried about where some of their favorite activities are going to take place.
Is this an ant bed Stimpson is really ready to kick? He’s got fire ants marching on several sides of this issue already.
Maybe the question is what is an acceptable loss each year for a facility that is arguably the center of the event that is the city’s biggest economic generator each year. What’s losing $1.8 million in the CC when it greatly helps facilitate an activity that brings in many times that to the city each year? Should we just say Mardi Gras is enough of an economic generator that we shouldn’t mess with their festivities? And there doesn’t appear to be anywhere else for the opera and ballet to go. So we’re just stuck with this old, unprofitable flying saucer-shaped building downtown.
That’s one point of view I suppose.
The other might be that Stimpson was elected to make changes and get Mobile’s financial house in order. It’s pretty hard to do that when every potential change is met with cries over how it’s going to mess up the way things have always been done.
Perhaps many of those cries will go away when there’s actually some kind of plan to take down the Civic Center and replace it with something specific. Maybe that something will not only serve carnival groups, but also the fine arts community and maybe even — stay with me here — not drain the city coffers.
Since there’s nothing more than talk about leveling the CC at this point it’s kind of hard to envision what might take its place, but hopefully whatever does will be exciting and practical at the same time.
Stimpson has ruffled some feathers by telling the Mardi Gras associations and fine arts groups they’ll need to start looking for new homes — at least for the short term. But we didn’t elect him to leave all the feathers snugly in place. A change like demolishing the Civic Center will certainly create upheaval for at least a few years, but at the end of the day it will hopefully result in something good for the city.
Thinking about it on a smaller scale, sooner or later someone is going to have to pave Ann Street before it becomes an actual dirt road. When that time comes it’s going to be a massive pain in the ass for residents, motorists and businesses. We’ll have to reroute and make different plans, but when it’s done there should be a shiny new road that doesn’t serve as a Viagra alternative for every alignment shop owner in town.
I see this as a “pardon our progress” situation. You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and Stimpson’s going to have to move some Mardi Gras balls and ballets to get rid of that burned-out, expensive Civic Center.
But don’t forget we didn’t hire the guy to keep everything the same.