It started innocently enough. The South Alabama Jags want to build a football stadium; and with the hope of getting the City of Mobile's support, they offered a deal that they believed the city couldn't refuse. If the city would help the with $10 million for debt service -- specifically, $500,000 per year for twenty years -- the University would contribute a lump sum of $2.5 million to redevelop Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
It hasn't gone as expected.
When introduced a month or so ago, it sounded like a wonderful plan and a win-win for the City and for the University. Mayor Sandy Stimpson was (and remains) on board with the idea. The school would also allow Ladd-Peebles Stadium's signature events to move to the new stadium, rent free. It's an offer that leadership of the Reese's Senior Bowl has already said they'll take, whether or not Ladd Stadium remains in its present form.
But there's significant resistance from the community surrounding Ladd Stadium, as well as others who simply don't want the city to contribute to a new on-campus stadium at South Alabama. As Lawrence Specker of al.com has correctly pointed out, there is "deep distrust" about the city's intentions for Ladd.
The mayor and city leaders have said that they want Ladd Stadium's future to be an open process that involves the surrounding community. There is no predetermined plan, at least not one of any detail. The only thing said (near the beginning of this process) was that Ladd could be downsized to be a great home for middle school and high school football, along with other sports like soccer and lacrosse.
While it appears that the fate of the two stadiums are intricately linked, it's not necessarily so. The University of South Alabama can and likely will move forward on its plans, even without the city's help. They don't need further permission to build and are already doing site work.
It's September 26, 2020; and the Jags are hosting UAB at their new home. Jags Stadium is state of the art, with everything from great seating and suites to good WiFi. Ladd Stadium had a Murphy High School game the day before, and as a venue for multiple schools, it may host another high school game on Saturday. But the big ticket events that would fill a stadium like Ladd-Peebles have mostly committed to the new Jags Stadium. The Dollar General Bowl will be there in December, while Ladd sits idle. The Senior Bowl will be there in January, while Ladd sits idle. A full Jags season will come and go, while Ladd sits idle; or at best, hosts a high school game in front of several hundred people. The Gulf Coast Challenge, which started in 2018, has also been offered a home at Jags Stadium.
There may still be one or two bigger events at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in 2020 and beyond, but its capacity is simply not needed for high school football games. And it's those high school games that would cover the bulk of the schedule. People would pull into the stadium, without interacting with the surrounding neighborhood, and the stadium would fill up with fans -- to maybe 5% of its capacity.
If the City Council decides to keep Ladd-Peebles Stadium as is, they will need to discover a way to pay for its upkeep. Mayor Sandy Stimpson said as much in Tuesday's council meeting, as quoted by al.com:
"Today I've heard no suggestion from the council or from the community on where the money will come from to fix Ladd," he said. "So my challenge to you is to come up with what will take $2.25 million per year for maintenance for the next five years so that we can make sure that it's usable."
And therein lies the problem that has yet to find a solution. Why would the city maintain a 33,471-seat stadium for high school football games that draw a couple thousand fans? How is that a good use of taxpayer money? And how exactly does that do anything for the surrounding neighborhood?
Let me stress this point: the on-campus stadium will be built. It might be a year later, or on the same timeline, but there will be a stadium rising in West Mobile over the next couple of years. And when that happens, our city's leadership will need to face the Ladd-Peebles Stadium issue and decide what to do with it. At some point in the near future, this discussion will no longer be optional.
As I've pointed out before, the city has multiple stadium issues -- a soon-to-be-vacant Hank Aaron Stadium, an aging and outdated Civic Center, and Ladd-Peebles Stadium. We need to resolve these issues in some sort of comprehensive way that can give our Mardi Gras balls a home in Downtown Mobile, that can return baseball to Mobile, that will give our soccer team a real soccer home, and make Ladd-Peebles a viable community resource without draining the city's finances. It's good to hear Councilmember Levon Manzie discussing these problems comprehensively, not simply discussing Ladd-Peebles Stadium in a vacuum.
The Mobile City Council has a choice now. They can make the city a partner with the new on-campus stadium and get some financial assistance with Ladd's future, or they can decide not to. That's a call they should make with the good of the city and its finances in mind.
Then separately, there will need to be another process for the future of Ladd-Peebles. I'd personally like to downsize it as was suggested early in this process. Play high school and middle school football there, but also put in a grass surface, and make it soccer friendly. It has potential as a great new home for AFC Mobile -- a team which set new attendance records again this year. And those games, as well as high school football games, would be played in a more intimate and fan-friendly environment. That's a plan would keep the stadium viable as a venue and a neighborhood resource.
We need to get beyond the drama that's happening now, and think realistically about the future of Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Because there is no scenario, whether the city helps fund the new USA stadium or not, that sees a need for Ladd-Peebles Stadium in its present form.