Is Mayor Stimpson too nice for the city of Mobile, Alabama?

December 28, 2013

Is Mayor Stimpson too nice for the city of Mobile, Alabama?

By

Ted Burnett

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.

– Peter Drucker, American management consultant, educator and author

 (1909-2005)

Disclosure: I grew up with some of Sandy Stimpson’s younger cousins and nephews.  I know his brother-in-law, Richard Miller of Brewton, AL.  While a student in high school, I once did some contract work at his family business, Gulf Lumber Company.  However, prior to our August 2012 meeting, we never had the opportunity to exchange greetings.

Having seen Sandy’s name in the Press-Register’s print edition weeks earlier for his role as a member of the Coastal Recovery Commission, which was created by Alabama Governor Bob Riley following the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, I decided to call him up, out of the blue, to make a statement.  What I said to the Scotch-Gulf Lumber executive earned me a meeting with Sandy in his company’s boardroom, two days later.  My comment was simply that, “His generation (i.e. Old Mobile) had done nothing for downtown Mobile!”

Rather than dress for our first meeting in the usual and expected Mobile “uniform”, I deliberately showed up in my summer attire wearing an untucked, collared fish-print shirt, a pair of un-pressed khaki pants and some leather flip flops.  It was so un-Mobile, but it has become true to my spirit.  Instead of passing myself off to this wealthy business executive, who lives in Springhill, as being just like him, another old Mobilian or, worse, a want-a-be by wearing the standard blue or white button-down dress shirt with a pair of pressed khakis pants and laced-up shoes, I wanted to challenge Sandy’s sensibilities by forcing him to look pass my attire to hear me out, to hear my ideas for poor ol’ Mobile.  How daring of me!

In our one-hour meeting, we discussed a number of issues facing the city.  Sandy revealed his plans to run for mayor to my surprise while asking me not to write about it.  What brought me to his office on N. Conception Street was a result of my travels around the South over the past decade.  Having visited or having some knowledge about several southern cities specifically Charleston, Savannah and St. Augustine where I had personally witnessed and experienced the positive effects of having a college located in the city’s downtown, as well as, having a vibrant tourism industry.

Charleston, SC has, both, the College of Charleston and The Military College of South Carolina (The Citadel) in or near its downtown.  Savannah has the highly regarded art and fashion school, SCAD – Savannah College of Art and Design while St. Augustine is home to Flagler College, a former hotel of railroad and oil baron Henry Flagler. The presence of these colleges is undeniable and their impact on their communities, in many ways, is obvious.

The absence of a college in Mobile’s downtown is hurting us, both, economically and creatively.  College students are full of energy and thus life.  Their presence on the city streets, in the day, can’t be ignored.  These transplants naturally gravitate to a city’s urban areas to live, to work and to play while attending school that longtime residents generally find undesirable.  Sandy stated that I was the second person to mention this idea to him.

Given the current “dead” downtown with an empty Barton Academy and other surrounding buildings, it seems like there’s, both, available space and a great need for a project of this kind, which will add a richness, bring more residents, more restaurants, more retail and more hotel guests to town.  Given some of the city’s other existing assets, such as, the Saenger Theater, Space 301 and other art galleries, as well as, several music venues this could make a performing arts college a viable idea or any project where the students and the teacher have to be in the same room for learning to occur.

Mobile has no real tourism, to speak of with < 500,000 annual visitors (a guessimate).  By comparison, Charleston, SC had 4.51 million annual visitors, in 2011, and was ranked the #1 Top City by Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers Choice for that same year.  Savannah, GA reported 12.1 million visitors, for 2011, while St. Augustine, FL, America’s oldest city with a population of only 50,000 residents draws some 5 million visitors per year to see their original fort and the old city.  It’s a beautiful town overlooking Matanzas Bay, which hosts a lot of destination weddings at the Casa Monica Hotel with high dollar art galleries lining both sides of the city’s square.

A college in and of itself doesn’t solve all of the problems facing our downtown or the city, but it does provide a start and is a possible anchor.  Mobile isn’t a tourist destination by land, water or air and that’s hurting the city.  Travelers and their money are passing right through the city on our interstates and highways without ever stopping.  Why should they?  The Interstate-10 corridor from the I-10/I-65 interchange going east to Water St. looks pretty unsightly and uninviting for the weary traveler, as well as, for anyone heading to Brookley Field on business. For all our downtown museums and area attractions, Mobile lacks a world-class venue and/or experience for residents to enjoy, for attracting tourists thus making recruiting another cruise ship that much harder.

Unfortunately, I don’t sense that our new mayor is looking to address the downtown’s issues anytime soon.  He already has his hands full with the city’s current budget crisis.  There’s only so much one person can do in running a city, but he does have the power of his office to establish exploratory committees to work on these types of issues and any opportunities.  Great minds are required to solve great problems and do it with a velvet touch.

Sandy served up a gold nugget, in a moment of truth, when he revealed that the Alabama Policy Institute, which he chairs, did a study at his request on how the quality of life for Mobile compares to other Alabama cities prior to Airbus announcing their decision to build their first North American aircraft plant right here, at Mobile’s Brookley Field.  The study’s results were so bad that it was buried never to see the light of day.  Rather than face these truths head-on as a responsible business and civic leader should, the results are being conveniently ignored by the new mayor, himself.

As a candidate on the campaign trail, Sandy kept silent about the study’s very existence and its findings.  What seemed like an opportunity to challenge Mayor Sam Jones with the cold, hard facts on the poor state of the city, Sandy went along with the mayor as an accessory to the crime.  I think that’s pretty irresponsible of anyone claiming to be a leader much less wanting to be the next mayor.  If Mayor Stimpson has to talk negative about some aspects of the city to bring about improvement such as the downtown, public education, the quality of life and the need to raise taxes, I don’t think he can or will ever bring himself to say it.  I think Sandy, considered to be a nice guy, suffers from the condition of wanting to be liked at the expense of being candid in public.  Or he’s simply gone blind to the city’s plight due to his place in society.  For leaders, this is a crippling disease when change is so desperately needed.

During the mayoral race (March 31, 2013), Business Insider reporter Julie Zeveloff picked up on a Gallup survey of the 10 most miserable cities, in America, posting her story on their website.  Guess who made the list?  Mobile!  The city was ranked #3, behind only #1 Charleston, West Virginia and #2 Huntington-Asland, W.Va, Ky, Ohio.  With an overall score of 62.4/100, the city had the highest in terms of unhealthy behavior, at #116.  The index looked at lifestyle habits like smoking, exercise frequency, diet, and consumption of fruits and vegetables.  I believe this survey of area residents also mentioned that Mobile suffers from poor emotional and mental health, which sounds right to me.

Note: Results were based on phone interviews with a random sample of 353,563 adults in the U.S. Metro areas are based on the Metropolitan Statistical Areas defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

As a graduate and board member of UMS-Wright Preparatory School, Sandy has put a lot of time and energy in making the school a better place for his children and grandchildren, its other students, their parents and the faculty members after 25 years of service sitting on the board of directors.  Being aware of his involvement as Chairman of Prichard Preparatory School, a fairly-new private school for African-American children, I addressed the issue of the city’s troubled public schools.

From his immediate reaction, it seemed like he had never once given these schools and their students a second thought.  I was a little taken back given his impending political plans.  I think there are some historical reasons as to why these schools are in such poor condition and it generally runs along racial lines and the socioeconomic standing of the parents.  If the smaller cities of Saraland, Satsuma and Chickasaw can take full responsibility for educating their children, why can’t the city of Mobile?

From doing some investigating, back in 2004, into the Mobile County Public School System’s performance, which is the largest school system in the state with some 64,000 students, it scored a “D” compared to other public school systems in the state and school systems in the Southeast.  Having the state’s largest school system maybe a worthy distinction to take community pride in, but it no longer has value with its near-failing grades.  Nor does it make any sense to keep the system together when it means sending children to these underperforming and possibly dangerous schools.  The students, their parents, teachers and our society deserve better.  I think a little friendly competition between the city and the county school systems would be good for everyone.

In 2013, the website, Parenting.com, ranked the Top 10 Best and the Top 10 Worst Cities for Education in America.  The criteria that the site used included graduation rates, test scores, per-pupil spending and more.  So, are you wondering if Mobile made either list?  Well, you can probably guess that the Port City didn’t make the Top 10 Best Cities, which included cities like Pittsburg, PA, New York, NY, Madison, WI, Ann Arbor, MI and Lincoln, NE.  Instead, Mobile was ranked among the worst cities at #3 behind only #1 Las Vegas, NV and #2 Jackson, MS for education “thanks to the state’s [Alabama] overall low proficiency in math as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress to go along with low per-pupil spending and big class sizes”.  I think this information serves as further proof that our education troubles are real, a true disgrace and a betrayal to this city’s children.

From a recruiting standpoint of new families to the city, every parent wants a good or excellent education for their children, they won’t settle for something that’s subpar in their own mind if they’re given a choice be it in the form of, either, private schools or living in a neighboring county.  Mobile maybe landing new industry, but their employees and their families are choosing to live elsewhere, either, in the county or on the Eastern Shore.  The deeper question that needs to be asked is, do the children and grandchildren of the housekeepers cleaning the homes of prominent Mobilians, living in Springhill and elsewhere, deserve an inferior education so as to never be a threat to their white peers later-on when seeking their first jobs and all subsequent ones?  Isn’t it time to finally right this wrong?  The irrational fears of society that result in a poor quality of life for some of us affect all of us.

Sandy’s failure to thoroughly prepare for our meeting by reviewing my biography, www.tedburnett.com, and knowing something about his adversary was felt when he cut me off as I was proudly talking about my experience with writing to Harvard Law Professor and, now, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA-D) who’s been in my audience along with many of her former colleagues at the Harvard Law School, since 2009.  Sandy didn’t care to hear where I was going with my thoughts.  He really didn’t know who I was as I sat across from him, in our meeting, while making these suggestions on how best to improve the city.

This would turn out to be our one and only meeting.  Either, my appearance, my politics, or something else, may have disqualified me, in his mind, as being someone who could assist him with his political campaign and later in helping to craft sound public policy at Government Plaza.  When he officially announced his decision to enter the race that fall, I wasn’t invited to attend his campaign kickoff.  I was pretty disappointed given the fact that few strangers would have the guts to call him up, as I did, and throw a verbal jab at him and his generation.

My enthusiasm to see my hometown, Mobile, become more livable, more enjoyable and even a destination wasn’t exactly reciprocated by Sandy.  While we exchanged a few emails during the mayoral race, I continued to challenge him on his campaign rhetoric at every opportunity.  I was kept at a safe distance as though I was some loose cannon.  Maybe I am.  In November, Sandy wrote to me in response to one of my father’s stories that I shared with this audience.  His email and comments surprised me.  Sandy said, “Whether you know it or not, I’m still enjoy reading what you write.”  The gesture was appreciated.

Is the city of Mobile in a league of its own?  Mobilians seem to act like we’re.  Every team is in a league.  We all know that The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers are members of the Southeastern Conference.  The conference’s 14 members are in one of two divisions (eastern and western) and they play each other resulting in wins and losses creating team records and division standings.  If Mobile were in a league with other cities for creativity, economic development, happiness…, what other similar-sized cities might we be competing with?  Where would we be, overall – at the top, in the middle or at the bottom of the standings?

We demand that our football teams perform at a championship level every season.  Being in the middle or at the bottom of the standings for very long is unacceptable and it usually costs most head coaches their jobs.  For all of our demands that we put on our favorite team, it’s no skin off our teeth and no sweat off our back when they’re working out in the spring and in the summer heat and playing on the gridiron in the fall.  Our contribution to their hard fought effort is to merely cheer and brag in victory or to boo and complain in defeat.

If Mobile were a team, who are the players and who are the coaches?  Do we, residents and stakeholders, have any role in how well the city does or doesn’t perform?  If the city has problems or a crisis, but the political leadership denies it then whose job is it to demand better, to apply the correct pressure that leads to positive change?  When does it become skin off our teeth and sweat off our back to solve these problems, ourselves?  Are these Washington’s and Montgomery’s problems to solve or ours?  When do we become willing to make the effort so we can start enjoying the benefits of living in a great city, be it big or small?

Earlier, I compared the annual tourism for Mobile (data not available, < 500,000), Charleston (5.41 million, YR11) and Savannah (12.1 million, YR11), St. Augustine, FL (5 million).  The following chart is the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) populations for Mobile, Pensacola, FL and Gulfport/Biloxi, MS.  We have the largest market (based on the 2010 Census) with 412,992 residents in the Mobile MSA and another 182,265 living in the Eastern Shore (Daphne-Fairhope) for a combined total of 595,257.  Pensacola’s 2010 Census was 448,991 residents and the much smaller Gulfport/Biloxi MSA was estimated for a 2009 survey to be at 238,772 residents.

Year Mobile MSA Daphne-Fairhope μSA Total
2010 Census 412,992 182,265 595,257
Year Pensacola MSA    
2010 Census 448,991   448,991
Year Gulfport/Biloxi  MSA    
2009 238,772   238,772

For decades, the Mobile Airport Authority has been desperately advertising to area travelers with its many marketing campaigns like their current one, “I Fly Mo”, in their television commercials and through their rewards program.  It isn’t working and it never will.  Originally (1929), the airport was located at Brookley Field off Interstate-10 and Michigan Ave., which is conveniently near the city’s downtown and strategically dead-center to Gulfport, MS to the west and Pensacola, FL to the east.  In 1938, the Mobile Regional Airport was relocated well outside of the city limits, in West Mobile, when the United States Air Force took over the field, which overlooks Mobile Bay.  When the Air Force abandoned Brookley Field, in 1969, the city had an opportunity to move the airport back.  They choose not to.  When the city replaced its original terminal with the current one (1986) the city could have moved back to Brookley, but, once again, they chose not to.

The new airport wasn’t located anywhere close to the city nor was it easily accessible to air passengers living on the Eastern Shore (and all of Baldwin County) or in South Mississippi.  It was inconvenient to almost everyone and it still is!  The airport can be found where the city’s main artery, Airport Blvd., turns into a virtual dead end even today.  Given the MSA populations and the geographical locations of these three cities (based on a 2009 survey and 2010 census data), what city would you expect to have the most number of passengers flying out of its airport – Mobile, Pensacola or Gulfport/Biloxi?  What city would have the second most?  Guess who’s bringing up the rear?  Get ready to be shocked at the terminals’ actual passenger numbers, for Years 2012 and 2011.

Source: CY 2012 ACAIS           10/30/2013
Rank Locid City Airport Name CY 12 Enplanements   CY 11 Enplanements   % Change
100 PNS Pensacola Pensacola International 740,852   750,190   -1.24%
131 GPT Gulfport Gulfport-Biloxi International 394,110   395,350   -0.31%
159 MOB Mobile Mobile Regional 277,432   288,461   -3.82%
                 

This simple chart reveals the degree of the problem at MOB and there’s little that the city or the Mobile Airport Authority can do about it to drastically change their fortunes in continuing to operate at the current facility.  The Mobile Regional Airport’s passenger traffic doesn’t make any sense for a city of its size compared to its smaller, neighboring markets.  Where it’s currently located isn’t working regardless of how much money is pumped into marketing and adverting.  The path of least resistance isn’t to fight the traffic and its many red lights on busy Airport Blvd.  Passengers in the Mobile/Eastern Shore MSA are clearly choosing to drive an hour east to Pensacola, FL or an hour west to Gulfport, MS on I-10 to catch their flights by almost 3 to 1 at Pensacola and by almost 2 to 1 at Gulfport/Biloxi.  Relocating the airport back to Brookley Field is simply a matter of commonsense.  These passenger numbers are laughable!  If the Mobile Regional Airport went offline, would the world miss us?

Does it make any sense for Airbus customers and suppliers to fly into MOB only to have to catch a taxi from West Mobile and ride over to the Airbus facility at Brookley Field?  With the airport back at Brookley, business travelers are only minutes away from downtown Mobile and only a few more to the Eastern Shore.  This move might lead to airlines rethinking their strategy regarding the city, which could possibly lead to more competition/more flights due to a natural rise in passenger traffic coming from South Mississippi, from the Eastern Shore/Baldwin County, AL area and from Northwest Florida while lowering airfares in the process.  Delta Air Lines doesn’t want us to go anywhere as they single-handedly control our market.

What impact might this action have on bringing a cruise ship back to Mobile?  Or regular flights of air freight coming from (or going to) Havana, Cuba someday that could be put on a nearby barge, rail or truck destined for Chicago, New Orleans or anywhere up the East Coast.  Moving the airport provides the city with new opportunities including renovating the entire grounds of Brookley Field and possibly adding a luxury hotel with a conference center.  The city needs a pier like Fairhope’s and the Mobile River isn’t that place.  Watching planes take-off and land while fishing, crabbing or just people-watching could give the city a much needed meeting place.  This is a matter of coming to see the obvious and that’s lacking at the far end of Airport Blvd near the sticks of Mississippi.  The Interstate-10 Bridge over the Mobile River has to be built to improve traffic flow and to serve the passengers using Brookley Field.

All sizzle and no steak.  As I tried to say earlier in describing Mayor Stimpson’s personality, Sandy comes off liking to do the easy things.  Two examples: When Business Insider reporter Julie Zeveloff’s story on the 10 most miserable cities hit the web then-candidate Stimpson invited her down on all-expense paid trip to see all that was great with our city.  I wasn’t impressed by the action that so many others seemed to love because I thought it missed the point of her piece and Gallup’s survey of area residents.  Those surveyed should have gotten the red carpet treatment, not someone who’s simply writing about the survey’s results.  As a candidate and now as mayor, I feel like he’s picking and choosing the data that best fits his beliefs and that’s a problem.  Life doesn’t work that way.  The second example is the video shot of little Mary Carlisle Williams, a 4 year-old, at Christmas when her parents informed her that she was really going to Disney World instead of coming to Mobile to see her grandmother.

If you saw the video of Mary Carlisle crying after her parents broke the news, you know what happened next as it went viral on the internet.  The video even appeared on The Jay Leno Show, so I’m told.  Mary Carlisle got to meet Mayor Stimpson and she even received a key to the city.  At the age of 42 and as a writer with a worldwide following who on occasion has been known to do a little name dropping of this area into his essays I want to know, where’s my key?  Must I bring home a Nobel Prize to get mine?  Mobile has a terrible track record of ignoring and even running off homegrown talent to the city’s own detriment.

His following comment to her seems a little insensitive, if not downright insulting.  “Mary Carlisle, you have had more exposure for Mobile in 20 seconds than most people have in years,” Stimpson said.  I see that as being all sizzle and no steak.  I guess I’ll have to go to Ruth’s Chris to get the steak!  Do you want to know what airport Mary Carlisle and her parents choose to fly into to see her grandmother?  You guessed it – Pensacola!  While Mobile got the all the glory, Pensacola got all the money, in taxes and fees.  There’s no question Mobile has a cheerleader in our new mayor, I’m wondering if we have a leader, as well.

Sources:

Brookley Air Force, Mobile, AL, http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brookley_Air_Force_Base

Charleston, SC Named Top City in the U.S. by Reader’s Choice, http://www.charlestoncvb.com/visitors/events_news/charleston-news/charleston__south_carolina__named_top_city_in_u_s__-1188

FAA Airport/Passenger/Statistics/CY12/Commercial Service Enplanements,  http://www.faa.gov/airports/planning_capacity/passenger_allcargo_stats/passenger/media/CY12CommercialServiceEnplanements.pdf

Gulfport-Biloxi Metropolitan Area, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulfport%E2%80%93Biloxi_metropolitan_area

Mobile Metropolitan Area, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_metropolitan_area

Mobile Regional Airport – History, http://www.mobairport.com/about-mobile-airport-authority/history/history.html

Pensacola Metropolitan Area, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pensacola_metropolitan_area

The official blog of the Florida Public Relations Association (St. Augustine, FL), http://fprablog.org/

Savannah Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development and Tourism, http://www.savannahchamber.com/economic-development/tourism

The 10 Most Miserable Cities In America, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-10-most-miserable-cities-in-america-2013-3#no3-mobile-ala-9

Top 10 Worst Cities for Education in America, http://www.parenting.com/gallery/worst-cities-education-in-america-2012?pnid=559409

Tourism leaders: Record visitor numbers bode well for Savannah’s future, http://savannahnow.com/exchange/2012-06-10/tourism-leaders-record-visitor-numbers-bode-well-savannah-future#.UsBqC7TORQs

 

Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved. “Is Mayor Stimpson too nice for the city of Mobile, Alabama?” by Ted Burnett

My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.tedburnett.com. I can be contacted via email at – tebjr1@yahoo.com.

I'm an American thought leader and pioneer on the subjects of human, organizational and societal development and health. I write about the role that integrity, dignity, sanity play, as well as, on the topics of spirituality, faith, freedom, happiness, problem solving and risk taking. I produce and deliver original, world-class commentaries on business, political, social and spiritual matters to a global audience of world leaders, chief executives and key decision makers, top faculty and notables in the fields of academia, banking, business, foundations, government (including heads of state, lawmakers and governors), healthcare, media, non-profits and policy institutes. Website: www.thesageofmobile.com