Since joining BamaPolitics.com, I have written several times about the ongoing saga that is the re-development of the Mobile Civic Center property. I’m sure this piece will not be the last time I write about it either. On Thursday, July 25, 2019, it was revealed that one of the two finalists for the re-development project, Stirling Properties, has written a letter withdrawing from consideration in this project. This leaves just one development left for this project, the Cordish Companies. I believe that it is time for the administration of the city to consider shelving this project or at least go back to the drawing board. Here are the reasons why.
Mardi Gras has been the biggest concern during this whole process. Mardi Gras has an annual economic impact on our city of around $20 million dollars. Very few, if any, single event or festival even comes close to that impact for our region. The Mardi Gras associations that start/end their parades and hold their balls at the Civic Center every year has been concerned from the beginning about not having a permanent venue at the Civic Center property to conduct their Mardi Gras activities, and now they have a good reason to be concerned. The Live! Project proposed by the Cordish Cos is the only proposal that didn’t include an enclosed event structure to meet the needs of Mardi Gras, as was pointed out in Stirling’s letter.
The developer left standing has been the one that has been the most secretive during this whole process. They didn’t come to the table with a concrete idea, just a concept, they didn’t come to the table with maps and locations of buildings and spaces included in their idea. They haven’t come to the table with financial projections and estimates of the costs to the public for this project, as others have, like was pointed out in the letter from Stirling.
The Mayor and his administration have said that all of this would be worked out in the next 4 to 6 months as the development team does their due diligence to formalize their final plans. My response is, why haven’t they already been doing that, and if they haven’t, why has the selection committee rewarded their fistful of magic beans proposal by allowing them to get this far along in the process when other teams have done their homework and did what was asked of them in the Request for Proposals? What happens if during this ‘due diligence’ period the team decides there isn’t enough upside or potential in the project to pursue it or the asks of the city are more than the development team wants to do, they can still walk away, leaving the city at the starting point once again.
If the timetable stays true to the Mayor’s estimates, any final proposals will come before the City Council right smack dab in the middle of Mardi Gras season during a municipal election year. If the project is modeled closely after other Cordish Live! projects, and ends up being a bunch of themed restaurants and bars with no event space for Mardi Gras, how well do you think that will go over with the Mardi Gras associations and the downtown entertainment establishments? It won’t and those two constituencies are the two that can kill any political career, even a two-term incumbent mayor’s political career.
Furthermore, what if this council decides that it would be best for the new council that will be elected within 6 months of the final proposal being released to make the final decision? This project instantly becomes the biggest issue in the municipal elections and becomes a referendum on this project, when the focus should be on the direction of the city. Will the Mayor play hardball with the council as he did with the Ladd Peebles Stadium proposal?
Finally, the way this project has unfolded, it leads to the question have all alternatives been explored and is pursuing a public-private partnership (P3) the best way forward for this project. At the July 16, 2019 city council meeting, Councilwoman Bess Rich floated the idea of using city debt service to rebuild the Civic Center property instead of a P3, If you did this with a multi-use event center and a parking garage, you could possibly free up enough space to put a hotel and/or an office building on the property with retail and dining space. A perfect partner to build, manage, and own a hotel and/or office commercial space already owns half of downtown anyway, including the most prominent properties in downtown, the Retirement Systems of Alabama.
It for these reasons that I believe it is best to delay the pursuit of this project for now and bring a fresh new perspective to the project in 2020, possibly after the municipal elections when new city leadership will be installed and will be the ones to have to manage the implementation of their decisions.