USA Stadium: Officials Try To 'deal With The Monster' Loading... >USA stadium: Officials try to 'deal with the monster' Updated July 12, 2018 at 12:35 PM; Posted July 12, 2018 at 12:28 PM A throng of 36,000 turn out at Ladd Memorial Stadium in 1951 for a football game pitting Auburn against Ole Miss. In the parking lots ringing the field are an estimated 4,500 cars. (Thigpen Photography) By Lawrence Specker Loading... email@example.com In the discussion over public funding for a proposed University of South Alabama stadium, this week's main development might have seemed anticlimactic. The emotion on display was anything but. Perhaps for the first time, it fully illustrated just how carefully university, community and city leaders will have to tread in order to keep a potential win-win from turning into an embarrassing lose-lose. In purely procedural terms, the outcome of Tuesday's discussions before the Mobile City Council was clear enough: The Council put off a vote for at least three weeks. That doesn't guarantee that a vote will happen July 31, but it does mean one won't happen until after District 2 Councilman Levon Manzie holds a July 23 forum for members of the Maysville community. Mobile Council postpones USA stadium vote until July 31 While the delay might well irk USA supporters hoping for a quick resolution, the time might actually prove valuable to their cause. It gives USA and city leaders a chance to re-frame a discussion that, to their great dismay, has shown signs of being perceived as a case of the Haves trying to take from the Have-Nots. Among those decrying that perception, and trying to find a way past it, was District 2 Councilman Levon Manzie, who repeatedly pounded his desk for emphasis as he lamented the way the debate had evolved. "I wish, and I'm going to say it until we agree to something, or disagree, I wish that this had been two separate discussions," he said. But linking USA stadium funding to the possible destruction of Ladd, he said, had left him in a "very precarious situation as to how do I move forward. Because my downtown merchants have one opinion. My citizens and stakeholders around Ladd Stadium have another opinion. And I'm hearing all of it. And I can't deny that I'm sensitive to what I'm hearing from the community." At one point he asked for a show of hands: Who in the audience was worried about Ladd's future? Of those people, how many also wanted USA to achieve its own goal of an on-campus stadium? "Every last one of them wants that," he said. "But we've tied this conversation up with Ladd, and it's causing all this of consternation in the community. That's exactly what has happened. And it's unfortunate that that's the road we took because we would not have raised the antennae of any of these individuals. They want South to have whatever South wants, and I do too. But when you tie Ladd into it, you've created a whole 'nother monster relative to this conversation. And I'm having to deal with the monster." The complication may have been difficult to avoid. Mayor Sandy Stimpson has asked the council to approve a letter of intent that says the city will give $500,000 a year to USA for 20 years, helping to pay off the debt that USA will incur in building the stadium. In return, a couple of years down the line, USA will give the city a lump sum of $2.5 million to help redevelop Ladd. Small wonder that, given the vagueness of that redevelopment notion, some saw this as a plan to tear down Ladd with help from USA. On Wednesday, council members shared an information sheet from Stimpson's office, restating his case. The stadium will not be demolished, it says, but "the number of seats will be reduced." It says the $2.5 million will help create "a multi-purpose use complex which could include walking/exercise pathways, a practice field and other additions to enhance recreation. These options could expand the usage of Ladd Stadium for the community as well as middle and high school teams." A survey and community workshops will help gather input for the plan. The sheet goes on to address the question of why the city shouldn't simply invest the proposed $10 million in Ladd. According to the mayor's office, over the same 20-year period Ladd will require $33 million to repair and maintain. "The USA investment will save the City millions of dollars in repair and maintenance costs and allow the community to have a more modern multi-purpose facility at Ladd Stadium," it says. Plans for aging stadium collide with Alabama law protecting Confederate monuments But Ladd's story, and its fate, can't entirely be boiled down to numbers. Since discussions began, some Ladd defenders have raised the possibility that a new Alabama law passed to protect Confederate memorials also could be used to protect the stadium from a teardown. Another theme that has emerged is that Ladd-Peebles Stadium truly is a point of pride for many who live close enough to hear the call of a game announcer or the roar of a crowd. That pride was vividly evoked at Tuesday's council meeting by the Rev. Joseph Rembert. And it wasn't just what Rembert said, but how he said it, bringing a healthy dose of historical perspective, hope and humor along with a glint of hard dealing. He noted that prior to integration, some black high schools had played games at Hartwell Field, and that it had been momentous when the players finally were allowed to play in Ladd. That remains a powerful memory, he said. "I don't believe that any other statue, building or stadium depicts the historical vicissitudes of Mobile, Alabama [better] than Ladd Memorial Stadium, aka Ladd-Peebles Stadium," he said. "Ladd Stadium also became the landmark in Mobile where black boys and white boys could play on the same football team against other black boys and white boys while black folk and white folk of all ages could sit in the stadium in places that were reserved for the schools rather than because of the players' skin," he said. Rembert prompted laughter when he referred to one of the stadium's more recent milestone moments. "President Donald Trump would not have appointed his second nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court if he had not gotten his fledgling campaign jump-started at Ladd Stadium," Rembert said. "Trump came back to Ladd Stadium to thank all the voters who turned out for him, and be assured I was not one of them." The Rev. Joseph Rembert addresses the Mobile City Council on July 12, 2017. Yet Rembert also had a sharp edge, and he turned it toward USA. "The President of the University of South Alabama has an annual salary plus benefits in the neighborhood of $500,000," he said. "The head football coach makes more than that. Their boosters have millions, maybe hundreds of millions. I beg this honorable council to think seriously about this matter. Citizens who let people park cars in their yards, those who work concessions and provide security, city workers who work early for little pay and benefits are God's children also. Be careful how you treat them." It fell to Nick Lawkis, associate director of USA's office of governmental relations, to restate the university's position. He started by saying that the letter of intent proposed by Stimpson says nothing about the destruction of Ladd, and that it will be up to the city to decide what to do with the stadium. He agreed strongly with Manzie's complaint that city support of USA and the future of Ladd-Peebles were two separate decisions that shouldn't have become so entangled. "That's absolutely correct," he said. "You're right on." "South Alabama did not mingle these two together," Lawkis said. "What is in this letter, all we're saying is, whether it's this deal or in the future, when we start playing games at home, on campus, it will have an impact on the community. So we're saying, here's $2.5 million to help the community with whatever enhancements they would like to do with Ladd. If not, so be it, we don't have to. We don't have to do it. We're just saying, as a part of this deal, if you would like $2.5 million to help renovate or spruce it up, whatever you'd like to do, we're trying to contribute to leave the community in a better place than when we got there when we leave. ... We'd like to contribute a little bit to what we've called our home stadium for the last nine years. That's all." As to Ladd's future, he told the council. "That's not our decision to make. That's yours. That's the community's." USA officials, including President Tony Waldrop, have said they need public support to build the stadium now and have it ready for 2020. The project will cost upwards of $70 million, and any money from the city and county will be a vital part of paying off the debt. Lawkis' "whether it's this deal or in the future" comment serves as a reminder: USA may need city support to build the stadium right now, but if that support doesn't come, it'll almost certainly build one in the future even without city help. If it comes to that, Ladd-Peebles will lose a major tenant and likely won't receive a parting gift to help with its makeover. At least some of the marquee events played at Ladd -- the Senior Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl and the Gulf Coast Challenge -- will consider relocating to the newer venue. The city will face the same maintenance expenses for Ladd even as it sees less use. District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson drew applause on Tuesday when he vowed that he would not vote for the demolition of Ladd. But he also took a show of hands "of the people who would be satisfied if we could save Ladd Stadium and repurpose it so that the people can use it." Seeing acceptance of that phrasing, he said, "that's what I'm talking about." Where exactly the line lies between "demolition" and "repurposing" is very much an open question. The July 23 community meeting is a chance to see if it's a line that can be drawn to the various parties' general satisfaction. The same meeting may also be stadium backers' last, best chance to convince some voters, and their representatives, that a vote for USA isn't a vote against Ladd-Peebles Stadium and the community around it. "This road we've decided to go down, that was decided for us to go down, has complicated this conversation. It really has," Manzie said Tuesday. "We're going to get there, I believe, but the road we took to this point has been unnecessarily complicated."