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Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
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Gulf Coast Classic game rises on
city budget's otherwise level tide

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
The Mobile City Council Tuesday delayed until next week action on the proposed Fiscal Year 2008-09 budget which includes a controversial appropriation of almost half a million dollars for a football "classic" later this fall.

State Rep. Yvonne Kennedy, a prominent local supporter of Alabama State University and former president of Bishop State Community College, appeared before the City Council to speak in favor of boosting city financial support for the Gulf Coast Classic football game pitting ASU and Southern University at Ladd-Peebles Stadium from $40,000 last year to $450,000 this year. She was joined at the podium by former state legislator William Clark, who is retired after longtime public service.

The Classic will deliver a "social, cultural and economic explosion in the City of Mobile," said Kennedy. She assured city officials of the diligent efforts that she and other members of an ASU committee spearheading the week-long event were expending toward GCC's success.

But detractors of the huge boost in backing for a game that has been played here for 35 years were skeptical, suggesting the proposal, from the perspective of the city's likely return on its investment, is the financial equivalent of a Hail Mary pass play with little chance of a big score.

Supporters concede that the happening may take a year or two to hit its stride. However, they point to other traditions such as the Magic City Classic and the State Farm-sponsored Bayou Classic as the best road maps for the Gulf Coast Classic's ultimate destiny.   

Although the Gulf Coast Classic has been played in Mobile with ASU as a constant for 35 years, it has never been a "classic" in the sense that the same two teams played at the same venue on a consistent date each year. This is said to make all the difference in the world in the excitement and economic impact that permeates the occasion, making it an annual "can't miss" experience for fans and alumni of both schools. Nevertheless, an accountant's skepticism persists in some corners.

Previously, Mobile's Gulf Coast Classic has merely been an ASU home game with a gussied up name.

The new proposal calls for management and promotion of the game or classic to be taken over by the the Gulf Coast Scholar and Sports Foundation (GCSSF), a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. Its principal figures are local media consultant Steve Harrelson, whose past associations have included a post with Raycom Television and management of the LPGA golf tournament at Magnolia Grove; Richard Davis, a retired educator who now serves as a director on the boards of the Mobile Airport Authority and Ladd-Peebles Stadium; and local businessmen Ray Lapierre and Taylor Hodge.  

In requesting the $450,000 supplement from the city, an increase of 1,100 percent over the previous year, the GSSSF's Harrelson, who claims an accounting degree from Auburn University, averred earlier this year, "Our local organization has taken complete ownership/control of the event. Being that this is a new ownership, there is not an immediate plan for reduced financial support. However, I feel that the event will create some consistency with the common opponent and consistent date. The long-term plan of the event is to be completely self-supported."

Chief of Staff Al Stokes has been the point man for Mayor Sam Jones' administration in advancing the case for increased funding of GCC with the City Council. MBT placed a call to Stokes Tuesday afternoon but it has not yet been returned. Nor did Harrelson return a call, although he said after a City Council conference Tuesday morning that he did not initiate a takeover of the GCC, but instead had been approached by ASU about assuming the event's management. He said he was unaccustomed to political tussling over funding questions.    

The game's budget calls for $500,000 in "grants" -- a $250,000 guarantee for Southern; $225,000 for ASU and $50,000 to fund scholarships.

At first, Southern officials were reportedly reluctant to agree to a four-year deal because it would cost them the revenue from two home games over the next four seasons. With an annual guarantee of $250,000 though, the university was persuaded to surrender a couple of home dates, although Southern retains the right to back out of the deal without penalty after two years.

The proposal appears headed for passage next Tuesday by anything from a 5-2 vote, to a 4-2-1 vote to a 4-3 vote. Councilmen Clinton Johnson, William Carroll and Fred Richardson are solidly in favor of a heavily-bankrolled classic. Council President Reggie Copeland and Councilwoman Connie Hudson have signaled thumbs down.

Councilwoman Gina Gregory and Councilman John Williams are more toward the middle. As an employee of MDI Media, Gregory may abstain from voting on the GCC proposal if it is lumped in with other agreements under the city's Strategic Fund Budget. Bayfest, which has a contract with MDI, gets monies through the SFB. The contract with Bayfest is typically broken out for a separate vote so that Gregory's potential conflict doesn't unnecessarily spill over into other city business.

Deeming it a "quality of life" issue, Williams has expressed support for the proposed new, improved GCC with some reservations. At midweek, Williams was not publicly and unalterably committed to backing the game with a $450,000 city supplement.  

The council is reportedly weighing an understanding in which the city would scale back its funding of GCC by $100,000 each year until the game was completely self-sustaining through sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandising revenues.

"The $450,000 is intended to start to phase out after year one," said Richardson. "Hopefully, a sponsor will be found by next year."

State Farm is the title sponsor of the Bayou Classic. Food World is the lead sponsor for the Magic City Classic. 

Still, the initial GCSSF-managed game on Nov. 15 would receive a $450,000 kick start from the city. By contrast, the GMAC Bowl, which was launched as the Mobile, Ala. Bowl before a sponsor came on board, nets support of $150,000 in its arrangement with the city. 

Last year's GCC also featured Southern and ASU and was played on Sept. 29 following a week-long series of related activities. The game drew about 12,000, according to Ladd-Peebles Stadium officials. Harrelson said attendance was closer to 20,000. ASU pegged the crowd at slightly more than 16,000.

Another aspect of the contest that drew comment was the enthusiastic tailgating activity which was said to rival that of the Senior Bowl.

"Classic-style formats" are popular in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Nineteen classics involving SWAC teams are scheduled in 2008. Sites range from Sacramento to Indianapolis to Orlando.

Among critics of deep-pocketed, city involvement in the GCC, other negatives include:

Shane Aldridge, general manager of the Marriott Courtyard on the Beltline and an officer with the Mobile Area Hotel and Motel Association, said he and other hoteliers did not believe the numbers added up to support a $40,000 to $450,000 increase in funding.

"In the past, we haven't received much of an economic impact from the game," he said. "It's usually two local teams. Alabama State and Southern are each about 2-1/2 hours away, so they (fans) can do it in a day. Drive in for the game and go home. I don't think the hotel saw much impact last year. There might have been a few."

"Now the Senior Bowl brings us a ton of business for the week prior to the game," he said. "They fill up the town. The day of the Senior Bowl, possibly not so much."

"The (GCC) game is already established here, so I'm not sure why it now requires this kind of money to bring people in," he said. "I'm not the person making those decisions, but it seems like the money could be better spent elsewhere."

Hudson, chairman of the council's finance committee, said the city has countless needs with a higher priority than attempting to inflate a football game with an infusion of taxpayer dollars.

She also noted a city propensity for special, one-time only kick-start appropriations that quickly become routine annual budget items.

"We cannot fund everything," she said. "These are difficult economic times."

Other appropriations in the city's strategic fund budget include:

"We've invested a lot of taxpayer dollars in economic development and tourism, all these avenues to try to promote our city and be progressive," she said. "We've done that. Now is the time, if there ever was a time, to prioritize. The needs now are public safety and infrastructure. That is what we need to do. We don't have the funding sources or the tax dollars to fund everything. You have to draw the line somewhere."

Hudson said she recommended "level funding" or the same $40,000 GCC received in FY 2007-08.

"Just like the mayor recommended level funding on everything else, I'm recommending we treat them (various city performance contracts) the same," she said.

"We need to look at a long term reduction in funding (of performance agreements) because we are at a point that we can't support infrastructure anymore," Hudson continued. "If these were better economic times ...

"We may ultimately see increasing revenues in terms of our industrial and economic development initiatives, but our coffers are not seeing the results of that, not yet anyway."

"If ever there was a time to be conservative and judicious, it is now," Hudson said of the nation's swirling financial debacle. "I have a feeling hard times are ahead."

The Council Finance Committee will meet Monday at 11 a.m. in the 9th Floor Conference Room at the Government Complex downtown to consider the FY2009 budget.
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