The Jags are planning to build a new football stadium and vacate their current off-campus home at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The new stadium on the South Alabama campus could quite possibly become home to the Reese's Senior Bowl, Dollar General Bowl, Gulf Coast Classic and local high school football. All of which would leave Ladd Stadium with no tenants and no real reason to exist.
The City of Mobile could continue to maintain the old football stadium, but if I'm correctly reading between the lines of Mayor Sandy Stimpson's recent tweets on the subject, the city isn't interested in continuing to put money into "an aging facility in need of significant maintenance and repair." And in fact, the city will be negotiating with the University to help with the debt service on the stadium bonds. The city can't really afford to spend money on both an outmoded Ladd-Peebles Stadium and a new stadium in West Mobile.
On the very same day we learned about the new football stadium, the Mobile BayBears confirmed once and for all that they are are leaving town for good and leaving Hank Aaron Stadium without a primary tenant. The final home games will be at the end of next summer. We all enjoy Christmas Nights of Lights on the same property, but that's not a reason to maintain an empty baseball stadium after the summer of 2019.
The Hank Aaron Stadium property houses not just a stadium, but the boyhood home of arguably our city's greatest ever ballplayer, Hank Aaron. For a city with more than its fair share of Hall of Fame legends for its size, that's saying something. The stadium is in a good location, too. Not necessarily great for a ballpark, but its visibility just off a busy I-65 (and next to Costco) means it's a valuable piece of real estate.
Ladd-Peebles Stadium is in a neighborhood that has quite frankly seen better days. And it's a residential neighborhood at that, not typically a place you'd find a modern football stadium. That leaves a lot of questions about what to do with the property.
NBC-15's Cassie Fambro hasn't yet received any comment from the city on these questions, but she's heard a few ideas: a recreation center for youth on the current Ladd Stadium property, converting Hank Aaron Stadium into a concert venue.
Mobile is a city with stadium issues.
Ladd-Peebles Stadium dates to 1949. And while Hank Aaron Stadium is relatively new by those standards, it was built on the cheap away from the downtown core. The stadium cost about $8 million in the late 1990s, while the organization's new home in Madison, Alabama will cost $46 million.
The Civic Center opened in 1964; and except when it was recently threatened with closure, hasn't attracted big concerts in decades. There is no anchor tenant for the building -- the hockey team left years ago. The NBA's New Orleans Pelicans were interested in putting a developmental basketball team in the city, but the Civic Center wasn't going to work. And there's simply no political will to put any more money into these aging dinosaurs.
I'm hopeful that Mobile has learned from our own bad experiences and from Pensacola's really good experience with Community Maritime Park. The Blue Wahoos play downtown, in a nice little stadium on the water. It's just a cool place to see a game and a great neighborhood to enjoy otherwise.
Mobile could have something similar. A couple of years ago, one of those rare concerts came to the Civic Center: Elton John! Before the show, my wife and I had a drink and a bite to eat in Downtown Mobile. It seemed like our entire downtown neighborhood was covered up with lots of others who'd had the same idea. And it was nice to see hundreds of people making the short walk over to the arena just before showtime. Unless you're going to be tailgating (soccer, football), this is why I like stadiums to be in walkable neighborhoods; the entire experience is so much better.
I don't know exactly what the city can or should do with two stadiums that are likely to be empty in two years. Preserving the Hank Aaron home is important, but it was moved once and can be moved again. The stadium itself, not so much. The land surrounding the stadium is valuable, and if the city has no other ideas, at least it could be sold to support the growing retail cluster in that area.
I've written on this subject before, when it first became apparent that the BayBears would be leaving the city. Here's what I wrote then:
I'd love to see a new arena built somewhere downtown, and then a new baseball stadium built on the Civic Center property. Maybe a long-awaited soccer facility built on the Hank Aaron Stadium property -- including a small stadium where our AFC Mobile soccer team can play. I totally get it, that's a big ask. The city has plenty of arguably more significant issues to worry about. But it's apparently time to start the conversation.
In the eight months since, the drumbeat to get something done has only gotten louder: the BayBears are moving, the Jags are moving to campus. One other positive thing has gotten done, and that's approval for a new soccer complex. That should ultimately give our AFC Mobile soccer team a great place to play in the future. (Note to soccer complex designers: leave room for a 3000- to 5000-seat stadium to surround one of those soccer fields, because it will be needed). Let's consider that a problem solved for now.
We'll soon have a couple of vacant stadiums, as well as an arena that the city isn't going to spend any more money on. The conversation has started already. Now it's up to us to steer that conversation toward the best outcome for our community.