AL: Mobile wrestles with ‘perpetual potential’ label amid Amtrak scrutiny

June 5, 2024
Long branded a “city of perpetual potential,” that reputation, along with the doubts over Amtrak’s success in Mobile, is raising renewed frustrations among city boosters whose job it is to promote Mobile.

It’s been almost seven years since former Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons questioned the financial sense of bringing Amtrak back to the Alabama Gulf Coast, while openly raising questions on whether anyone would take a train to Mobile.

Lyons said at the time that he could see coastal Alabama riders traveling by train on weekends to Biloxi or New Orleans. But tourists coming to Mobile? Unlikely, he said.

Fast forward to 2024, and the same argument is occurring in a city where leaders, journalists and others have long branded Mobile a “city of perpetual potential.” That reputation, along with the doubts over Amtrak’s success in Mobile, is raising renewed frustrations among city boosters whose job it is to promote Mobile.

“I think you have to believe in yourself,” said David Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile. “We think all our cultural and culinary history and arts and attractions and restaurants, and you are a very walkable city, very diverse and there is heritage tourism. I think you’ll have people coming in droves here.”

Carol Hunter, spokeswoman with the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said it’s difficult for residents to move beyond the “perpetual potential” inertia if city leaders aren’t championing Mobile.

“It is disheartening when some of our leadership doesn’t think there is enough of a reason to visit Mobile,” she said.

Raising doubts

Elected officials, last Tuesday, shared serious doubts about bringing the trains into Mobile as they criticized a $3.048 million request for the city to subsidize Amtrak’s Gulf Coast operations over three years.

Council members focused much of their criticism on the fact that the City of Mobile, and not the State of Alabama, was asked to pony up the funds to pay for the service. They noted that state governments in Mississippi and Louisiana were paying for the operations subsidy for a route associated with Amtrak’s “state-supported” network.

But the conversation also dovetailed into other worries:

  • Will there be hundreds of passengers coming to Mobile? Some council members doubted the estimates, though Clark said there is a potential for the trains to bring in enough visitors whose spending would make the train akin to a “mini-cruise ship” when it comes to economic impact to downtown Mobile.
  • International travelers who come to New Orleans will not visit Mobile to make any significant impact, according to skeptics on the council. Train proponents, however, say European visitors prefer rail travel over automobiles and would be encouraged to take the Amtrak train to Mobile for day trips or weekend excursions.
  • The scars of past economic development projects – namely, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, loom large among the council’s concerns. The $60 million vessel-shaped museum on the city’s waterfront has never drawn anywhere close to the original attendance projections of 300,000 visitors. The museum, which cost more than $60 million to build, drew fewer than 13,000 people last year. The original estimates by boosters to push local officials to support GulfQuest looms as a cautionary example on any Amtrak decision.

“I think (GulfQuest) introduced a lot of caution into these rosy, economic estimates for what the ridership will be and tourism wise,” said Councilman Joel Daves, lumping skepticism of the two projects together.

Economic benefits

Clark said the economics of Amtrak makes sense for Mobile to dedicate $3.048 million over three years to support the operations of a twice-daily Mobile-to-New Orleans connection. The council is also being asked to support a lease agreement with Amtrak so the train operator can build a depot on city-owned property at Cooper Riverside Park that is adjacent to GulfQuest.

According to Clark’s figures, Mobile stands to gain the following:

  • $69 million in capital improvements to rails in Mobile County, and an additional $3.5 million to $4 million directly to the Port of Mobile. That money would come from a $178.4 million federal Consolidate Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) grant awarded to Amtrak by the Federal Railroad Administration in September. All told, approximately $228 million in new capital investments are slated for the Gulf Coast rail line between Mobile and New Orleans. “The economic impact from the capital investment is immense from the CRISI grant,” Clark said. “And that does not happen (if the operations agreement isn’t approved).
  • $20 million in wages and 450 jobs related to the projects along the coastal rail line.
  • 10,000 hotel room nights during the first year of the train’s operations, which would add $1.7 million in new lodging tax revenues.
  • $10 million overall tourism impact, attracting 32,000 to 36,000 visitors per year that otherwise are not coming to Mobile.

“We’re talking about $3 million spent over three years, and we’ll be getting $10 million in tourism, $69 million in rail infrastructure improvements, 450 jobs for those rail improvements and $22 million in wages,” Clark said. “I think that is a really good deal. It’s really good for business.”

Council members are skeptical over how the deal will be a positive for city government.

They are also skeptical that a three-year agreement will not turn into a subsidy lasting four to seven years and costing around $2.5 million or more annually.

“I am in opposition of us paying for the whole thing, the $3.048 million,” said Councilman Josh Woods. “I don’t know what years four, five, and six look like. That is what scares me … signing up to subsidize it for years to come. It’s probably going to be higher.”

Clark said with the Alabama State Port Authority satisfied, there is no reason for the city not to support the initiative.

He also echoed Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson by saying the CRISI grant represented a “game-changer” for rail infrastructure in Mobile County.

“Sometimes the greatest change is not taking one at all,” Clark said. “There is a payback here to boot. That’s the way I look at it from a tourism and economic development standpoint, and the payback is phenomenal.”

European travelers

Clark said the long-term prognosis on Amtrak illustrates future growth, noting that Europeans who fly into New Orleans will travel via rail.

Jon Worth, a European journalist and blogger whose specialty includes the European rail network and train transportation, told via an emailed response Friday that there is no doubt Europeans will take a train from New Orleans and embark on the short destination to Mobile.

“Does that alone justify the investment?” Worth said. “I doubt it. You’d have to assess how many European tourists there are and extrapolate from that how many would theoretically take the train, but I’d be surprised if they were numerous enough on their own to justify an investment. As part of a wider plan for the route, OK. Just the Europeans? Doubtful.”

Daves said he has plenty of doubts that foreign nationals visiting New Orleans will come to Mobile and spend more than two days in the Alabama Port City.

“That is also hard for me to swallow,” Daves said. “You have to be realistic when sending out these attendance numbers.”

Hunter, with the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said there is no scientific modeling of European visitors into Mobile. She said anecdotally, there is evidence suggesting Mobile is a place where Canadian and European visitors come whenever they arrive to New Orleans or Memphis.

“Passenger rail is a huge buzzword for that authentic travel,” Clark said. “It’s a big uniter and a unifier for the Gulf Coast cities and a uniter for visitors and residents to have that experience. The youth prefer that kind of travel. At the end of the day, we’ll have a highlighted cultural experience that, for all of these reasons, pays for itself at $1 million a year.”

Bullish outlook

Clark said he believes Mobile is about to embark on a renaissance in the next 10 years, and that it’s worth embracing. He cited major projects coming on board like the $414 million downtown airport at Brookley opening in late 2025 and a more than $300 million Civic Center redevelopment that will finish by 2027.

He called the skepticism about Mobile an “old school” mentality. Some of that exists on social media from commenters who often question the rationale of investing in Mobile because Mobilians simply do not support its amenities. Those doubts resurfaced during the recent revelation that a minor league hockey club could be brought to a Civic Center, with some commenters pointing to past failed minor league sports franchises like the BayBears and the Mysticks.

Clark said instead of the negativity, Mobilians should be prepared for more visitors to come.

“I think starting in 2026, our tourism growth will be similar to what Savannah, Georgia, is at,” Clark said, estimating Mobile drawing 5 million tourists – an increase of over 38% that could occur by 2027 and 2028.

“The Port is expanding, Austal is doing great, the distribution sector is growing, and the health systems and universities are growing, and residents are moving back to town again,” Clark said. “I know of where the future is going, and we know the metrics have people like the Kessler Collection coming in to invest in us now with premium boutique hotels. Mobilians need to hear those things right now.”

Casino-less Alabama

Councilman Ben Reynolds, who said he cannot support a $3.048 million subsidy from the city’s coffers for Amtrak, said he believes there is plenty of amenities in Mobile to lure in the visitors.

But he admits that Mobile doesn’t have the casinos that attract big crowds to Biloxi and downtown New Orleans. He noted that if Mobile had a casino that was tied to other casinos along the Gulf Coast, it could allow people to “hope around through the region” more aboard the train.

Gambling packages, though, have long stalled in the Legislature. The latest casino and lottery iteration – which included a casino in Mobile County — failed to advance out of the Alabama Senate, falling short of 1 vote from passage.

“There are still a lot of good things to do in Mobile,” Reynolds aid. “But I don’t suspect we’ll have 300 seats filled every day with people coming in (via Amtrak).”

He added, “Clark is the tourism expert, and I don’t discount what he says too much. But the statement of who will come to Mobile? People come to Mobile all the time and will still come to Mobile whether it’s on a train, bus, car, or airplane.”

Reynolds said there is frustration that the City Council is “being used as a forum to have this discussion” about backing a state-supported Amtrak connection that requires support from the city’s coffers. He said the city taxpayers should not be on the hook.

Daves agrees, but said he believes the trains will be filled more with Mobilians flocking to the casinos in Mississippi or to Harrah’s in downtown New Orleans.

“I just don’t see it being a big tourism boost,” he said.

Hunter, with the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said there is a bigger picture at play with an Amtrak connection, saying it would open the city to larger rail network that connects into Union Station in New Orleans.

“That’s not an option we have right now,” she said. “Yes, Amtrak is not the most convenient way to travel. But if you don’t want to drive or don’t want to fly, once you get to New Orleans, the rest of the country is open to you. That’s a primary reason for our advocacy for this.”

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