Row over USA stadium contribution continues

4 July 2018

The 69-year-old Ladd-Peebles Stadium will cost $33 million to maintain over the next 20 years, according to Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson is continuing to push a plan to demolish and downsize Ladd-Peebles Stadium and give $10 million to the University of South Alabama’s efforts to build its own football facility, but many of the people who must approve the deal still have unanswered questions.

USA has plans to construct a 25,000-seat, $72 million stadium for its football program on its West Mobile campus by the fall of 2020 — a long-awaited development for Jaguar fans and one that might only be possible with a big chunk of taxpayer dollars.

“At present, the university does not have the funds to build the stadium without the city and county support,” USA spokesman Bob Lowry told Lagniappe. Originally, USA had suggested the $20 million public contribution was more about legitimizing the project than funding it.

As a result, both the Mobile City Council and the Mobile County Commission have been approached by the university about contributing $10 million to the project over the next 20 years. The county has showed interest in a smaller contribution.

Stimpson, however, has opted to tie the city’s contribution to a larger plan to resolve looming financial obligations at 69-year-old Ladd-Peebles, which has more than $6 million of deferred maintenance needs, according to the administration.

If maintained properly, Stimpson said Ladd could cost the city more than $33 million over the next 20 years or as much as $90 million to rebuild from the ground up. He’s called Ladd-Peebles “a $100 million problem” that could potentially be “a real money pit.”

If an agreement with USA is inked, Stimpson says the city would only be obligated to spend $500,000 per year through 2027, which Finance Director Paul Wesch says could be generated mostly from money that would otherwise have gone toward maintenance and capital needs at Ladd-Peebles anyway.

In return, USA would also give Mobile $2.5 million to help cover the cost of demolishing Ladd-Peebles and rebuilding a smaller facility in that location for hosting high school and middle school football games as well as other sports such as soccer and lacrosse.

While the administration is calling the proposal a “win” for everyone, it’s not avoided controversy. For starters, despite its current condition, there’s vocal opposition to its demolition and reconstruction.

Then there’s the Public Park and Recreation Board of the city of Mobile, which has managed the stadium since 1983. Board Chairman Ann Davis has been opposed to such a radical move and said it’s an unexpected shift in the city’s approach to the stadium.

Plus, much of Stimpson’s concern about the stadium’s current condition is based on an engineer report conducted in 2016 — one the board and City Council members say Stimpson’s administration has not mentioned for nearly two years.

Despite “serious issues” cited in that report, the stadium has hosted dozens of events since 2016, including two visits from Donald Trump.

In a letter from attorney Mark A. Newell, the stadium board questioned Stimpson’s tactics in releasing the study as part of his push to support USA. Newell noted the board was provided similar structural reports in both 1997 and 2009 without any such delay.

“We were shocked and surprised to learn this week that the city has had in its possession since October 2016 an engineering report from Barter and Associates Structural Engineers indicating the stadium’s infrastructure was graded D+, and that the stands have ‘serious issues with corrosion’ and ‘need immediate attention,’” Newell wrote.

The city says some of the issues cited in that 2016 report have already been corrected. City spokeswoman Laura Byrne said “the stadium is safe for next football season” and “some recent guardrail repairs” were made ahead of the 2018 college football season.

“The immediate issues we were able to resolve on our own,” Byrne added. “The additional issues the report revealed to us don’t cause immediate danger. The report didn’t reveal that is in danger of collapse.”

As for not making the report public, Byrne said the approval of funding was on a City Council agenda — something at least a few city councilors were questioning last week. Byrne said the city was also waiting for the results of a study on other city facilities being conducted by CBRE.

The decision to include Ladd-Peebles’ demolition and reconstruction as part of the public contribution to USA has also proved to be a concern for the County Commission, which voted to delay its consideration of the university’s request last week due to the implications it could have for the public stadium.

Under the proposed agreements with USA, collegiate bowl games hosted in Mobile, including the Reese’s Senior Bowl, Dollar General Bowl and the Gulf Coast Challenge, would be allowed to play in USA’s stadium in perpetuity without paying any rental fees to the use the facility.

However, there’s also been concern over whether the bowl games would want to play in a smaller stadium. In the not-too-distant past, the Senior Bowl has drawn more than 40,000 spectators, but USA’s proposed facility would seat a little more than half that.

However, newly appointed Executive Director Jim Nagy told city officials last week the Senior Bowl has no plans to leave and would be fine playing at USA’s new facility when it is built out.

“We want to play our game in the best stadium possible. We want to put on the best event possible, and that would be at South in our opinion,” he said. “We can put on a game at Ladd, but we really can’t put on an event at Ladd.”

For NFL staff in Mobile throughout Senior Bowl week and for most of the players, practices are far more important than the game itself, and USA’s campus would come with the added benefit of multiple practice fields, including one protected from the elements.

The only downside to the campus is that it is a 20- to 30-minute commute from downtown. Yet Nagy said the condition of Ladd stadium isn’t an issue as much as the lack of parking options and space that can be made available for sponsor tents, tailgating and food vendors.

“In my new role, I have to think about game day, and I’ve never realized how landlocked that parking lot was and how limited we are spacewise in and around the stadium,” Nagy said. “That’s the biggest issue for us going forward because we want to make this game more of an event so the NFL will never come in here and try to do anything to our game.”

At this point, the county is still waiting for the issues with Ladd-Peebles to be sorted out before making any kind of contribution to USA’s stadium effort. As of this publication’s press deadline, the City Council had yet to make a decision on Stimpson’s proposal as well.