The year 2019 brought coastal Alabama plenty of political fireworks, most prominently during a blazing-hot summer.
From May through August, the region’s political scene was roiled by a state plan to toll motorists to pay for a $2.1 billion Interstate 10 Bridge and rebuilt Bayway.
Ultimately, local government leaders on the Eastern Shore cut the I-10 project from their short-term priority list, prompting Gov. Kay Ivey to declare whole thing to be “dead.”
“I’m very disappointed,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson recently said, reflecting back.
Expressing hope that an revised I-10 project will emerge, Stimpson said, “It’s hugely important.” He added, “I hope we can overcome some self-serving interests to do the right thing and that is to get the bridge built.”
Here’s more about some of the top stories in coastal Alabama during the past year:
Is I-10 really ‘dead’?
The biggest local story of the year involved the demise of the Alabama Department of Transportation’s I-10 Mobile River and Bridge project.
Headed into 2020, Bill Sisson, president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s essential to find a workable alternative. “We just have to have that east-west infrastructure to be able to capitalize on the growth of the port. Commerce has to move, and that is an incredibly important infrastructure piece,” Sisson said, offering, “I’m optimistic.”
Lee Lawson, president of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, said that while “everyone wants to see” an I-10 project become a reality, the toll approach was the wrong one.
“I’m hopeful and confident that we have real strong leadership at the table to revitalize it and come up with a plan that the governor and the highway department and their team can hopefully all get together on.”
The issue of growing Mobile became the hot topic ahead of Thanksgiving. Stimpson pitched a plan to annex 13,000 people west of the city limits, if those neighborhoods endorsed it during a special referendum.
On Nov. 19, a bid to schedule the referendum failed to win sufficient support on the City Council. It needed five votes, but got only four. The vote fell along racial lines: the four white members were in favor, while the three black members were against.
The annexation, if successful, would have altered the city’s racial balance from 50% black-45.4% white to 48.8% black-46.7% white.
Council members who voted “No” said they were encouraged to do so by constituents who wondered why the city would want to spread services thinner.
Stimpson said his administration will keep pursing “the opportunity to annex,” thus growing the city’s population and qualifying for larger shares of federal dollars. “Hopefully, we can reach a compromise or a point where we can have that fifth vote,” he said.
Mobile garnered national attention after the May announcement that the Clotilda had been found, sunken in a remote section of the Mobile River north of the city. The Clotilda was the last slave ship to arrive to the United States in 1860 with approximately 110 West African captives on board. Following the Civil War, the Africans settled in the Plateau area of Mobile — otherwise known as Africatown — and developed a unique community whose culture was embraced by following generations.
The discovery of the ship’s remnants, following an intensive exploration and research effort, culminated with an Africatown community celebration. “This is a local story. A community story. A national story. An international story,” said Mary Elliott of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, during events at the Robert Hope Community Center. “This is a story of both slavery and freedom. I emphasize that.”
Mobile commercial aviation ventured down a new path in spring 2019, when Frontier airlines began flying to Denver and Chicago from the Downtown Mobile Airport at the Brookley Aeroplex.
More airlines could be doing the same very soon. Due in summer 2020 is a master plan that will serve a guide for relocating all commercial air service to the Downtown Airport from Mobile Regional Airport.
One goal in 2020, according to Mobile Airport Authority President Chris Curry, is to immediately “transition” one of the legacy carriers — such as United, America Airlines or Delta — from Mobile Regional to the Downtown Airport.
Meanwhile, Brookley’s biggest tenant, Airbus, is poised for more growth in 2020. In December, Bloomberg News reported that the plant will be ramping up its production of the in-demand A320-family of aircraft to six per month.
The plant has also started producing the company’s new A220 jetliner. A new $300 million assembly plant for the A220 is expected to open in the spring or early summer.
Airbus spokeswoman Kristi Tucker said that 2019 brought “explosive growth” for the company in Mobile, with the workforce surging past 1,000, and with on-site suppliers employing another 350 or so.
Civic Center Future
The future of the Mobile Civic Center became a key issue for discussion in 2019, as two firms competed to oversee its redevelopment. By the end of the year, only one firm remained, Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.
Cordish is pitching the creation of one of its Live! entertainment districts at the Civic Center tract. The mayor made an important stipulation, however: Preserve the Civic Center’s arena, an epicenter for Mardi Gras.
Stimpson said that a revised Cordish plan could be ready for presentation within the next 30 days.
In August, the school bell rang on Alabama’s 73rd city school system. It’s at Gulf Shores, which officially split away from the Baldwin County Schools in June.
Mayor Robert Craft called it a “historic” moment for the city, and the school’s first semester has seen enrollment rise beyond projections, according to Superintendent Matt Akin.
Meanwhile, the Baldwin County school system hasn’t been idle. In October, it opened a new $17.4 million Bay Minette Elementary School, completing a project long sought by the north Baldwin city.
Also opening late in the year was the 22,000-square-foot Baldwin County Virtual School in Daphne, a nerve center for on-line-only learners in the school system. Elsewhere, the Baldwin school system continues major construction projects in the Belforest area, in Fairhope and in Orange Beach.
Mobile in October celebrated the inking of a three-year agreement with Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines that will keep the Carnival Fantasy sailing out of Mobile through Nov. 30, 2021. It was the first multi-year agreement the company has signed to sail out of Mobile since the company brought cruising back to Mobile in 2016.
A nearly year-long legal fracas between Stimpson’s administration and the Mobile City Council over interpretations of the mayor’s hiring authority under the 1985 Zoghby Act was resolved this fall. The resolution in the lawsuit provided a domino effect on some long-stalled issues involving Mobile city government: The fiscal year 2020 budget, which was supposed to go in effect on Oct. 1, was approved albeit several weeks late.