Mobile might be able to claim an Olympic swimmer in Paige Madden, but her hometown’s “Spirit of Mobile” was without a natatorium or any competitive-size swimming pool to hold its event in April.
The City of Mobile Swimming Association (CMSA), an independent club that offers competitive swimming, decided to travel about an hour to the west and host the event at a city-owned pool in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“We will host another one in Biloxi in October,” said Tyler Kearns, dean of students and head swim coach at St. Paul’s Episcopal School. “Those are revenue streams for our community that could be coming here.”
The club’s home pool at Bishop State Community College, while a nice enough for training and classes, is not large enough for competitive meets. The group is urging county and city support in building an indoor natatorium as demand rises for competitive swimming.
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson, this week, reaffirmed her interest in building a natatorium. She’s also pushing for more additions to an evolving soccer complex, and believes it could host a water theme park through a public-private investment.
The new natatorium, water park and continued additions on the soccer complex are all parts of Hudson’s longtime goals of addressing a demand for sports tourism in Mobile. The push comes as other cities in Alabama have sunk major money into sports tourism, highlighted by multi-million investments in large metro cities like Huntsville and Birmingham and smaller cities like Hoover and Foley.
Mobilians are likely familiar with Hudson’s plan. Generally, it tracks a plan unveiled about a decade ago, but which languished amid local political disputes and tight funding.
“Circumstances and funding are forcing me to be patient,” Hudson said. “As soon as I can get support and help and funding, I’ll do it as fast as I can.”
The soccer piece seems to be moving faster as demand continues to rise for competitive events and the need for a full-fledged championship field with enough seating for approximately 1,400 spectators and a press box.
The county commission, with a unanimous vote on Monday, authorized a $2.4 million purchase of 61.4 acres of property adjacent to the Mobile County Soccer Complex off Halls Mill Road. The funding comes from Hudson’s capital improvement account, and the acquisition will provide enough space for the lighted championship field, two additional parking lots, concessions, locker rooms and an additional soccer field with artificial turf.
The project is considered Phase II of the soccer complex, and design is nearing completion. Hudson anticipates bids going out in the late summer and construction underway by spring 2022.
Once completed, the Phase II addition will mark the halfway point for Hudson’s goal of having 10 soccer fields within the complex. The project’s first phase, which opened a year ago this month, includes three lighted fields and parking for over 200 vehicles.
The soccer complex and Hancock Whitney Stadium – home the University of South Alabama Jaguars football team – are the first new sports facilities to open in Mobile since the 1990s.
“The championship field is important because high schools and colleges tournament that we go out and get, they need a championship field with the stands and the locker rooms and the restrooms,” said Danny Corte, executive director with the Mobile Sports Authority, the sports tourism arm for the city and county. “You have to have those facilities to compete for those (events) and that is what we are going to go after.”
Corte said with 10 soccer fields, “you can compete with about anyone in the nation.”
Among the users of the new facility is AFC Mobile, which practices at and manages the facility.
Patrick Dungan, co-owner of AFC Mobile – a team which began in 2017 and competes in the National Premier Soccer League – said the 1,400-seat field could be added on for additional seating that would allow for bigger competitions. He said that the goal for AFC Mobile is to have a professional team in Mobile, which “takes resources,” and a bigger facility.
“It upsets me as a big soccer fan and as a native Mobilian to see the number of world-class athletes the city has produced over the ages and I firmly believe that this area is capable of producing world-class soccer players, too,” said Dungan. “But it never has.”
He added, “These type of sports tourism facilities serve multiple purposes. Not only do they bring in visitors to the area and increase tax revenues and give people more exposure to the city, they also serve to provide additional resources for locals who live here with good fields to play on and to become better competitors and athletes.”
Recent studies show the demand for soccer in Mobile. A 2018 survey of 1,721 youths by the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute showed that soccer trailed only basketball as the sport most play by high-schoolers in grades 9-12. White youths play the sport at greater numbers than Black youths – Close to 50% of white boys and girls surveyed said they play soccer, while only a quarter of Black youths said the same. Mobile is a majority-minority community, with 51.5% of its residents Black and 43.5% white.
Swimming remains a popular activity for youths from kindergarten to the fifth grade. According to the Aspen study, only basketball has a higher participation rate than swimming among young children, though swimming falls behind football, track and field, baseball, and volleyball from grades 6 and up.
Hudson said she is committed to seeing a competitive swimming pool become a reality in Mobile even if no funding sources are identified for it. She said cities the size of Mobile, such as Biloxi, have some sort of venue where organizations can host competitive events that draw tourists and fill up hotels and restaurants.
In Alabama, fast-growing Huntsville unveiled a $22 million facelift to its natatorium in 2017, and the venue is now drawing events with close to 2,000 competitors. Each competition is also bringing visitors to flood the hotels and restaurants, generating millions in economic return.
Birmingham also has a competitive aquatic center as part of the $46 million CrossPlex project that was completed about a decade ago. The venue will be utilized for aquatic events during the 2022 World Games.
Talks about an aquatic center in Mobile date back to 2001, and Corte noted that a 20-year-old feasibility study gave the city the OK toward building a natatorium.
“Bishop State is the only indoor aquatic center we have, and they have done a good job for years, but the facility has gotten old,” said Corte about the only indoor pool in the city that was built in 1978. “We are competing with other cities that have very nice natatoriums. If we want to compete in that arena, so to speak, we have to have updated facilities.”
He added, “It’s not only swimming, but we see that with the soccer fields and the indoors facilities for basketball and volleyball and softball. This is one cog in our sports facilities wish list that I think is a very important part. That begin said, how do you pay for it? That’s the big question.”
CMSA, the independent swim league, has around 1,000 swimmers who participate in summer league swimming. An additional 400 to 600 participate on high school seam teams within Mobile and Baldwin counties. The independent club has between 150 to 200 swimmers compete during its peak seasons.
Madden, the Team USA Olympic swimmer, was once a CMSA member, and Stearns – the St. Paul’s swim coach – believes there will be a “10 to 20 percent bump” in membership once the Olympics begin on July 23.
Kyle Cormier, head coach and CEO of CMSA, said he believes there is more momentum in the talks about a natatorium, and is confident that it will materialize.
Said Stearns, “I know we’ve heard about it in the past that it may happen, but it just takes a few people like the county commissioners to make it happen for the community. If we can keep this on track, it will be amazing for the aquatic community.”
He said the key will be getting city buy-in and, in past years, the council has committed funding for the soccer complex. Last year, the city set aside $250,000 for it.
“An aquatics center … fits nicely with the soccer complex and would be a well utilized amenity for our community,” Councilwoman Bess Rich said. “Qualify of life and fulfilling community needs go hand and hand with a dynamic and sustainable city.”
The water park project was also included in Hudson’s original vision, and she wants to make sure that it’s still out there as a possible attraction.
She said a public-private partnership, that includes tax incentives, would be utilized for the design and construction of an entertainment complex.
Though Mobile is a short drive to the Alabama beaches, there are few water parks in the region. Waterville, a 20-acre amusement park, is in Gulf Shores and has been in operation since 1986. OWA, the amusement park in Foley, is opening a large indoor and outdoor water park with about a dozen water slides in 2022.
“Water features, if done right, are a game-change whether it’s to a resort, or to a community and public space,” said David Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile. “They will stand the test of time. It’s something for citizens to enjoy and grows tourism. It’s visionary and is fitting for today and will be relevant into the future.”
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