(MOBILE, Ala.) - The Jacksons brought their Triumph Tour to what was then known as the Mobile Municipal Auditorium back in 1981. Elvis Presley made the ladies swoon when he performed here six times between 1970 and 1977. In May of 1973, rock band Led Zeppelin brought down the house to a sold-out crowd. Well, as they say, those were the good old days.
The City of Mobile broke ground for the auditorium in 1962 and the facility opened in 1964. It cost around $10 million.
A lot has changed in nearly 50 years. Nowadays, you’ll find the Mobile Civic Center draws in a much slimmer crowd. Thousands pack inside for various Mardi Gras balls every year, parents line up for tickets when the circus comes to town and college graduations are often held here. Even church functions and funerals are held here.
The city shells out just over $1 million every year to fund the Civic Center.
“We actually have a deficit over there of sometimes $800,000 but $600,000 is the power bill,” said Mayor Sam Jones.
Council member William Carroll said that the city needs the Civic Center, but that it is costing a lot of money.
“The Civic Center I’ve said seven years ago needs to go” said Councilman John Williams. Williams said the one million spent on the Civic Center could be put to better use.
This year, city leaders battled for ten months over a multi-million dollar financial deficit and whether to pass a one cent sales tax increase. John Williams told LOCAL 15 News, the city could generate millions by dumping some of its properties, starting with the Civic Center. “It’s going to be an expensive endeavor to tear down, but let’s let somebody that buys the place determine what they do with it,” said Williams.
Council Member Fred Richardson disagrees. “It’s just like saying, I need to tear my house down, and my question to you would be where you gonna live? If we’re going to tear it down, have something to put up equal or better,” he said. Mayor Jones said the Civic Center was not built to make profit on operations, but to generate economic impact for the community.
In the past year, 279 events, including Mardi Gras, were held at the Mobile Civic Center. Nearly 200,000 people, some who traveled from all over the country, attended those events. Those folks no doubt ate at Mobile’s finest restaurants and spent several nights in local hotels. When you add in sales and lodging tax, the city raked in, and the mayor says you get the big picture. Jones said, “If we tore down the Civic Center today we would save $148,000 a year and lose $32 million in economic impact and we would not be able to bring the amenities into this city that our citizens enjoy. I don't think you're going to go to any of our surrounding areas that have civic centers and they come and tell you, oh, we made a huge profit this year.”
Chocolate festivals, hair shows, boxing matches all took place at the Civic Center this year alone. The problem is most of you didn’t know anything about it.
“I think they'll need to do a better job in getting out to the public exactly what they're doing, they are very busy,” said Fred Richardson.
The answer to the question of whether the Mobile Civic Center is profitable changes depending on who you ask. Mayor Jones said the facility adds to the overall economic impact for the city. Some council members say the facility is bleeding money. And at least two of them have their own ideas about what should happen to the facility.
“I would like us to one, correct the size, correct the AC system, correct the flaws over there so that the city isn't paying out a whole lot more money than what we're putting into it,” said William Carroll. “I believe that we could give it to the Mardi Gras association and we could save ourselves a cool million dollars this year and every year for now on.”
“We are not really of the opinion that the Mardi Gras association could afford to upkeep the Civic Center and still do what they do. We can't make a profit off it, they can't make a profit off it either,” said Mayor Jones.
Speaking of the future of the Civic Center, Mayor Jones said in the past he’s been approached by a key investor to develop the property. “Right before the downturn of the economy, we thought we really had a deal. This would be a major development, probably retail, condos, all that combined which would really enhance the inner city as a whole. I think that the investment we're making keeping that venue at a point where we can be competitive is well worth the investment,” he said.
Mayor Jones said if the Civic Center was torn down today, the city would still need a facility of that size.