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Fourth down and $188,000 to go for Gulf Coast Classic

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Organizers of the Gulf Coast Classic at a press conference next week are expected to respond to Mobile City Council President Reggie Copeland's pointed assessment of the financial performance of the city-backed "classic" football game between Alabama State and Southern at Ladd-Peebles Stadium last fall.

A major sponsor, cited as a critical need by GCC's directors and Copeland, may be among the developments disclosed in advance of next fall's game, the 36th annual such contest but only the second under its more costly format.

(Ray Lapierre, treasurer of the Gulf Coast Scholar & Sports Foundation, the new managers of the GCC, said Tuesday, Feb. 17 that the classic was in the midst of sensitive negotiations crucial to the future of the event and therefore had postponed the press conference.)

Principles with the Gulf Coast Scholar & Sports Foundation, new managers of the revamped but long-standing GCC, recently released an audit which showed the event suffered a deficit of more than $188,000 despite more than $350,000 in public support.

Copeland suggested the GCC audit was deficient, virtually meaningless in providing any true understanding of the revenues and expenses related to the venture.

However, GCSSF treasurer Ray Lapierre countered that the GCC's finances were "transparent," as the audit by qualified, well-established accountants attested. The audit was not conducted independently, but was commissioned by the game's management.

Lapierre said GCSSF representatives would answer questions and provide supporting documentation for the GCC's financial activities at the press conference. Neither the time nor site of the session had been determined, said Lapierre, although he hoped to set it on Wednesday at Ladd-Peebles on Virginia Street.

The contest was a lightning rod for controversy last fall as the City Council wrestled with the fiscal year 2008-09 budget. Originally, Mayor Sam Jones' proposed city budget called for the GCC to get a boost to $450,000 from the previous year's appropriation of $40,000. The increase was justified, proponents contended, because the 40-year-old ASU home game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium was being converted to a true "classic" formula a la the annual Bayou Classic pitting Grambling and Southern in New Orleans and the Magic City Classic between ASU and Alabama A&M in Birmingham. With initial public support, they contended, the GCC could grow into a big time success like those classics and, indeed, in a fashion similar to city-supported events such as the GMAC Bowl, BayFest and the LPGA Tournament at Magnolia Grove.

However, to reach its potential as "one of the premier HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) college football contests in the country," the GCC needed greater start-up funding in addition to the same two teams facing off on a consistent date each year in the same location, proponents maintained.     

In the end, after acrimonious and racially-charged debate, the city council compromised at a $275,000 appropriation on a 5-2 vote, with Copeland and City Councilwoman Connie Hudson opposing. Later, City Councilmen Clinton Johnson, Fred Richardson and William Carroll each pledged to direct $25,000 from their districts' discretionary accounts to buttress the event's finances if necessary. The additional $75,000 hasn't been released yet and won't be pending further legal review, according to City Council Attorney Jim Rossler.

Contrary to post-game reports of attendance exceeding 25,000, Copeland said the actual turnstile count for the Saturday, Nov. 15 game was 10,732. Copeland said he had evidence to support the accuracy of the figure. In Copeland's reckoning, had the attendance actually been 25,000, technically there would've been no deficit, although significant taxpayer financing would certainly make for muddy water in any claim to a break-even outcome. Admission to the game was $15. 

Copeland's report "to whom it may concern" noted the audit's figures of $576,005 in revenues and $764,546 in expenses resulting in a deficit of $188,541. He pointed out that the contract called for Southern to get $250,000 and ASU to receive $225,000.

There were 762 hotel "room nights" associated with GCC, said Copeland, generating more than $81,000 in taxes, but with the city's share being just about $4,000.

Among the areas of the audit that Copeland questioned were:

According to the GCC website, Rayco Industrial sponsored the hugely-successful luncheon, hosted by Jones and Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden. Rayco is headquartered in Selma with offices in Mobile. Its president is Ray Harrelson.

State Rep. James Buskey served as chairman of the committee handling the Mayor's Luncheon.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased to be able to announce a complete sellout nearly two weeks prior to this year’s event,” Buskey, a longtime state legislator, was quoted in advance of the 2008 GCC.

Copeland made a number of recommendations whose adoption, he said, would lead the GCC to a sounder financial footing, greater credibility and less public skepticism.

Among its priorities for the 2009 event, the GCC should, according to Copeland:

Copeland said the GCC organizers had plenty of time to implement the changes which would greatly improve prospects for a successful event. Copeland also acknowledged the possible demise of the 2008 version of the GCC if the two universities are still "owed a lot of money" from last year as this year's game approaches.

GCC claims "long-term commitments from both universities," ensuring that the Classic will feature Alabama State and Southern University for several years.

Neither GCC manager Steve Harrelson nor GCSSF board member Sydney Raine immediately returned calls in connection with this report.

Promoters billed the 2008 GCC as "a week chalked full of fun, festivities and -- of course -- football. With the Stomp the Bay Step Show, the Gulf Coast Classic Parade, the Manning's Food For Less Tailgate Party, Battle of the Bands Halftime show and the 5th Quarter Battle of the Bands, get ready for one jam-packed week."
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