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Chip Drago
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City Council walks rocky road
to reach budget compromise

Hard words before sudden $275,000 compromise
reached on funding increase for Gulf Coast Classic

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
The Mobile City Council Tuesday colored outside the lines but ultimately put the finishing touches on city budgets of more than $250 million for fiscal year 2008-09, including a sudden post-recess compromise appropriation of $275,000 for the Gulf Coast Classic football game here next month.

Mayor Sam Jones' proposed budget had provided $450,000 for the game featuring Alabama State University and Southern University. Last year, the game received $40,000 and drew about 12,000-15,000 fans, according to city officials and Ladd-Peebles Stadium personnel.

The proposed 1,000 percent-plus increase in funding for the GCC had been the hub of dissatisfaction over aspects of the proposed budget.

GCC supporters maintain that converting the 35-year-old event from simply an ASU home game in Mobile into a true "classic" format in which Southern and ASU will be regular competitors on a consistent date each year at Ladd-Peebles Stadium is a crucial change. Reworked into a genuine classic, the GCC has the potential to replicate such Historically Black College & University (HBCU) "classic" success stories as the ASU vs. Alabama A&M Magic City Classic in Birmingham and the Bayou Classic in pre-Katrina New Orleans, they say. Last year's Magic City affair drew almost 70,000. They pointed out that the classic games are HBCUs' version of the bigger college football world's bowl season with all its pageantry and extracurricular festivities.

Councilman William Carroll, 38, a stocky former tight end for the Florida A&M Rattlers during his collegiate days, said someone unfamiliar with HBCU classics cannot appreciate the difference in the attitude toward the event among the school's supporters. Handled correctly, the game between between ASU and Southern could grow from a draw of 15,000 to 40,000, according to Carroll. Carroll said Mobile's black community was already buzzing about this year's GCC.

Media consultant Steve Harrelson, a principal in the non-profit Gulf Coast Scholar and Sports Foundation which has taken over management of the GCC, said the Magic City Classic last year had nearly 100,000 people in the parking lot outside of sold-out Legion Field in Birmingham.

Detractors argued that a frightful economy and the game's spotty recent history justified, at best, level funding which most other community events and organizations with city performance contracts were allocated in the new budget. With public safety and infrastructure reaching critical stages as well, the timing was not right for wagering on taking the GCC big time, they maintained. 

The almost 3-1/2-hour meeting featured:

The City Council delivered a medley of its standards from:

Just when it appeared that all was lost, during a 15-minute recess, a compromise for GCC at $275,000 was apparently brokered, up from Williams' proposed $250,000 and down from $300,000 others held out for. Coming from either side, Carroll, Richardson and Johnson joined Gregory and Williams near mid-field to pass the budget amendment 5-2. Hudson and Copeland opposed.

"I thought it was a dead issue," Harrelson admitted.  

Just before the vote, Ladd-Peebles General Manager and former state school board candidate Paul Christopher and state Rep. Yvonne Kennedy, previously an ASU spokesperson on the GCC issue, arrived and joined a contingent of ASU supporters in the gallery.

Speaking on behalf of the new GCC were Harrelson, Prichard Mayor Ron Davis and local businessman Taylor Hodge, who serves on the GCSSF and on the Board of Trustees at ASU.

No one appeared to publicly speak out against the big increase in the GCC appropriation, but Hudson, Williams, Copeland and Gregory all acknowledged much notice of opposition by email and telephone.

Johnson, Richardson and Carroll all emphasized past city start-off support for events such as the GMAC Bowl (originally the Mobile, Ala. Bowl) and the LPGA Tournament at Magnolia Grove. The GMAC Bowl initially got $1 million in backing for the inaugural bowl game. It now nets funding of $150,000 annually from the city. The LPGA receives $350,000. Both events are televised, unlike this year's GCC.

As is often the case in a municipal budget scrap, one issue like the GCC becomes the vortex which sucks seemingly unrelated items into its swirl. Any number of other budget items were put in jeopardy as their importance to one council member or another identified them as leverage points.

Until the Council broke for a 15-minute recess, frustration reigned and a stalemate seemed inevitable.

Probably what rescued or may have contributed to containing a politically volatile situation was the realization of a languishing $750,000 that had been budgeted for the past few years in anticipation of the need to build a road for an EADS CASA and Raytheon joint cargo aircraft assembly at Mobile Regional Airport.

Hudson recommended that the funds be divided equally among the seven council districts to create a $107,000-plus discretionary capital account for each Council member. Whatever expenditures were recommended from those accounts would still require the approval of the full Council, not merely the direction of the district council member.

General discretionary accounts of $50,000 each already existed.

With control of more dollars, though constrained in the capital discretionary accounts, the biggest supporters of the GCC on the Council gained some flexibility to demonstrate their faith in the game's potential to benefit the community by turning to their less restrictive $50,000 non-capital discretionary accounts to bolster the start-up kitty for the GCC.

Given Hudson's zeal for more capital spending and her skepticism over the GCC proposal, it is unlikely that she intended to salvage the GCC with the reallocation of the $750,000.

The loser, according to Jones' Chief of Staff Al Stokes, may be the city's ongoing efforts at economic development. Jones said the city was involved in 16 on-going economic development initiatives, all of which require some sort of public "incentive" package. He said he was not at liberty to discuss details of any of the projects.

One project that Jones has alluded to in previous public appearances may involve commercial and/or residential redevelopment in the Mobile Civic Center area at Church and Claiborne Streets near I-10.

Also, in reducing the GCC appropriation, monies became available to correct at a cost of about $127,000 annually an injustice when 333 police and fire fighters who retired before Sept. 30, 1996 inadvertently lost out on a two percent raise.   

Getting to the finish line though, the City Council took some corners on two wheels.

Hodge kicked off public discussion of the GCC, comparing its potential loss to Mobile to Birmingham's loss of the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn, now played on a home-and-home basis on either school's campus.

He suggested that the city's "minimal investment" in the past had left "a segment of the city culturally disenfranchised." The downturn in the national economy made for poor timing on the GCC request, Hodge conceded, but it would also be poor timing for the city, amid the arrival of much foreign investment, not to signal tolerance and inclusion of "people who are different."

He asked the Council to support the game with funds and with their attendance.

"This is not some high school game, not some sandlot game," he said. "It's a major event."

Harrelson suggested it may have been easier to sell the Council on the GCC if it had never existed. Among HBCU fans, there truly is an enormous difference between a regular season football game and a game organized as a "classic," Harrelson said.

"I'm not sure why the media has jumped all over this event," he said. "But please don't cut these other things (annual performance contracts) because of an issue with the GCC."

Arriving at the podium next, the Prichard mayor said, "No, I don't have a check." He said his administration and the city heartily supported the new GCC and he believed the Blount/Vigor game that weekend could complement the GCC, enhancing its prospects for success.       

Johnson said the years had seen millions of dollars spent on events in the larger community for economic and cultural development "but not one dime was spent in the minority community."

Copeland said his thinking had nothing to do with race and everything to do with a lack of confidence in both the numbers and likelihood of a return on the investment. Among Copeland's concerns were each school's guaranteed sale of just 2,500 tickets at $15 or $20 each; separate economic impact statements of $9.4 million and $4.2 million; dubious game budget figures; a 6 p.m. kickoff allowing fans to drive the 2.5-3 hours back to Montgomery and Baton Rouge after the game rather than spend the night in a local hotel; and no television contract.

"I'm not here to destroy anybody or the game, but we need to look at a new agreement," Copeland said. "We need to keep it in line with the GMAC (Bowl) which is $150,000."

Richardson called it "a sad day" for "a diverse city" to leave an important citizenry "slighted."

He said if the national economic crisis causes "them to go under up there, it's got nothing to do with the city of Mobile." Richardson said Jones delivered a balanced budget that included the $450,000 GCC appropriation.

Recalling the post-Civil War creation of HBCUs, Richardson said the University of Alabama would not admit him when he graduated from Conecuh County Training School 50 years ago. He gained degrees from ASU and later the University of South Alabama.

"Classics" came about among HBCUs because various bowl requirements prevented HBCUs' participation.

Nevertheless, despite the Dred Scott decision impugning the value of blacks, attendees at HBCU classics can see that the football players, the band members and the student body courts are "on a level with any university in the world," Richardson said, putting to lie the long ago Supreme Court ruling that wrongly "tainted" blacks.  

"If you give us a chance, give hope a chance, keep hope alive in Mobile, we can have the same type of game as in Birmingham and New Orleans," said Richardson. "This can be a economic engine. It's like the fisherman with a new boat and a new rod and reel. If he doesn't have bait, he's not going to catch any fish. This $450,000 is just bait."

To the contrary, said Copeland, the big appropriation lessened the incentive for GCC supporters and participants to sell tickets and woo sponsors. Also, the GMAC Bowl guaranteed "so many hotel room" nights, diminishing the value of a comparison, said Copeland. 

"It's like Bayfest," Richardson said. "It's the same thing. You get out of it what you put into it."

Richardson pointed out that a lucky ticket holder at the GCC this year would win a red Ford Fusion.

"If you give hope a chance, we can fill that stadium up," said Richardson.

"I support sports events, especially when they are on TV," Gregory said. "But I don't understand these figures. $450,000 is too much, just too much to spend at this time."

Johnson claimed 10,000 tickets had already been sold and argued that the GMAC Bowl got its start as the Mobile, Ala. Bowl with $1 million in city backing. Johnson contended that it made no sense to try to recreate the GMAC Bowl's success with the GCC unless you funded it to the extent that activities existed to encourage visitors to stay for two or three days and use hotel rooms.      

"If we want to be responsible, we have to do the same thing (for GCC that) we did for the other (GMAC Bowl)," said Johnson.

The initial $1 million was reduced each year as the GMAC Bowl got its legs, said Johnson, and the same approach should be duplicated with GCC.

Johnson said he and other council members "would not stand for" unfair treatment of GCC.

"You're going to be surprised at what isn't going to pass the Council," he said. "We're going to have the same set of rules. Now we're not playing by the same set of rules. We are not going to stand for it. The GMAC and the LPGA won't pass. I promise you."   

"I promise you these things won't pass," said Johnson. "We will be dysfunctional because I'm not a guy to sit back and take what we're being asked to take today."       

Richardson suggested that representatives of the fledgling University of South Alabama football program could be surprised and disappointed when they next appear before the City Council.

What if the Jaguars play before 5,000 fans? asked Richardson. Should the city waive stadium rent? Should it supply police, traffic, parking, security and lighting?

"We're not going to hear this meltdown (when it is the face of USA before the Council)," he said. "We'll hear, 'Yeah, give it to them.' We need to paint with the same brush and the same color. Treat everybody the same. What were there, 500 people standing around out there (at the LPGA tournament). It looks to me like the reason we're not doing this is clear when you look at who we're doing it for."

Hudson said a downward economic spiral and now chronic inattention to the city's infrastructure and public safety needs trumped spending an additional $410,000 on a football game no matter the color of the players, their jerseys, their fans or the grass.

"I'm disappointed to hear Councilman Johnson would hold hostage things that are in the best interest of the city," Hudson said. "In times past we had $200,000 for capital improvement. We're on a downward slide in this community on revenue. There is an economic crisis. People are losing their jobs. This is not a minority issue. You can pretend like it is, but it's not. It is not about color. It is not about race. It's about what's in the best interest of this city. The history shows that there will not be the economic impact to sustain this level of funding."

Carroll said he was "appalled" at Hudson's implication that black visitors were incapable of generating the economic impact of whites.

"Don't put words in my mouth," said Hudson.

"You said it as plain as black and white," said Carroll. "I think you ought to take it back."

"This issue has divided this Council like I've never seen in over 20 years," said Johnson. "I'm not Lazarus sitting at the rich man's table begging for crumbs. We have a vote. And it can all go down the drain."

Copeland said there were too many wildly varying cost estimates and revenue projections to lend reality to the enterprise.

"I'm sorry if anybody thinks it's racial; it's not," said Copeland. "We've gone from $15,000 to $40,000. I want the game. I'm the sports guy. My opposition has to do with the dollar amount, not any other reason."

Williams said a legitimate economic impact of $10 million would justify an appropriation of $350,000-$400,000, and a $5 million economic impact about $175,000-$200,000.

Williams, who had twice tried to advance a compromise at $250,000, said, "I thought the $250,000 would keep the game alive and give you a chance to show us."

A series of votes intended to get the dispute over the hump then ensued to no avail.   

"Enjoy yourselves today, but you won't always have the votes," said Johnson. "You have four votes today, but you won't have five tomorrow. It's futile."

Legislation creating the Mobile City Council calls for a super-majority or a minimum of five affirmative votes on virtually all matters except for the budget which requires a simple majority or four favorable votes from the seven-member Council.

Council opposition to the GCC was "offensive" and "repulsive," said Johnson, "the worst" he had encountered in nearly a quarter century as an elected leader.

Hudson observed that annexation proponents were probably glad that voters in the on-going referendum were not on hand for the Council meeting.

"I think it would affect how they vote," she said.

"The chair needs to get this matter resolved," said Copeland. "We don't need a stalemate here today."

The 15-minute recess was called.

Shortly upon their return, the 5-2 vote put the matter to rest and the Council moved quickly and routinely through the remainder of the agenda.       

The effect on the game of the change in projected financial commitment was uncertain, said Harrelson. The game is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 15, making last-minute sponsorships unlikely for this year.

"The city (or public) money ($450,000, plus $50,000 from the county) dollar for dollar goes to the universities ($250,000 guarantee for Southern, $225,000 to ASU and $25,000 for scholarships)," Harrelson said. "What's committed to the universities is $475,000. What we have got to determine is a way to make up that shortfall somewhere. I don't know if that (sponsorships) can happen this year. Actually, we are talking to two very hot prospects -- I'd rather not say who they are -- but that wouldn't happen this year."  

"With the city's allocation being what it is, we will go and re-evaluate over the next couple of days," he said. "It's got to be done very quickly so we can make up that shortfall through some other means, a potential sponsor or something. Do we feel confident enough in ticket sales to guarantee those kinds of bucks? We are going to have to make that decision very quickly."

He said he expected a decision by the end of the week.

Among the possibilities were sponsorships, greater ticket sales and/or more public funding, he said. One possibility involved individual council members allocating funds for GCC from the $50,000 in each council member's general discretionary fund.
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