January 11, 2000
by Edmund Tsang
The following interview with Mayor Mike Dow of the City of Mobile was conducted on January 4, 2000 in his office.
Q: You are Chair of a task force responsible for testing Mobileís air quality. Could you give us a status report?
Dow: [County Commissioner] Sam Jones and I are chairing this initiative. The interesting thing about the task force is that it has the city, county, the Chamber of Commerce, the industry representatives, and Mobile Bay Watch all sitting down around a table. We have a facilitator who took us through the process to determine a mission statement, to come up with a set of rules that we are going to live by. That is, if we do this study, we will support and live by what the study says, that we are going to work not just to find out whatís in our air but also to find out how to improve air quality in the Mobile area. We have several educational meetings, bringing in some experts to talk about how to approach air quality issues. It appears very few communities have come together like we have and attempted to do something this complicated in this far-reaching manner. So I feel like we are pioneers. We have a request out right now for a vendor who can write for us a program of work and help us word the request for proposal so we can attract a national or international company who can come in and carry out the study. We have already committed funding, the county, the city, and industry, and I have another unnamed party who wants to put a substantial amount of money to this pool to get this study done. I think we should have this request answered about the end of February, and we will pick a firm that will prepare for us this request for proposal, put it out, and accept a vendor. The task force is doing that now.
Q: What do you hope the air quality study will accomplish?
Dow: For one thing to tell us what the facts are, because there are a lot of emotions and a lot of information that is puzzling. If you look at Phenolchemie or Degussa, you say they are chemical companies so we donít want them, and we say they are heavily damaging the air. In fact, EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says these companies are minor polluters; they arenít as bad as some other companies that we are not focusing on that have serious implications to air quality. We need to truly understand what toxins are going into the air, whatís dangerous and whatís not, and what we ought to focus on. So learning the facts is one goal of the air quality study. I think too that we need to be looking at trends and see where the trends are going, where the true damage is coming from, things like the ozone. One thing that is interesting to me is, if you look at the Forum, the group of industries in the Mobile area excluding Alabama Power, who we know is a coal-burning power plant, and thatís a different issue that has got to be addressed, but the Forum has gone from 72 million pounds of toxic release [a year] down to less than 20 million pounds [a year] in the last ten years. So that is showing a sharp downward trend. International Paper Company is now 100 percent dioxin free and 99 percent chlorine free. Thatís tremendous progress, and there are other industries that have spent a lot of money to reduce pollution and their trends are going down. If these industry trends are going down, we need to be aware so we donít throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. Now, there is at least one industry that I wonít name right now that I have a serious problem with. So I think the air quality study is going to get our community organized around the issue of air quality, get informed, and come up with a plan on how we can impact the air quality in a more progressive way.
Q: Let me turn to athletics. The City has been successful in attracting a baseball team and an ice hockey team. Now, the folks at the University of South Alabama are talking about football. What is the City of Mobile prepared to do to support USA football?
Dow: When I talk about quality-of-life issues, I refer to five areas: sports, recreation, entertainment, arts, and culture. About the turn of the last decade from 1987 to 1989, the City began to focus heavily on economic development and job creation. The Chamber of Commerce and the City and County formed a partnership, and we have created about 55,000 net new jobs. The next serious focus for the City is downtown redevelopment and tourism. We have created a tourism industry and itís growing. We have a lot of things happening like waterfront development and a cruise ship dock and a transportation center. Those things are on a good strategic path. Then the City realized our youth and family issues are not getting a serious focus. Around Ď93-í94 we began to upgrade our public parks and put amenities in, got the Bay Bear baseball team and ice hockey, and fifty tennis courts. We are focusing on organized sports and recreation that kids can get into, where they learn discipline, keep physically fit, stay out of trouble and all these kinds of things that we consider important. Now, as far as football, we put roughly $10 million in Ladd stadium. This year we are going to pave the parking lot and to improve the playing field, putting in new sod. The City has created a second bowl game in addition to Senior Bowl. The high schools and several college games are played there at Ladd Stadium. But the principle reason we are investing in Ladd is the realization that South Alabama football is on the horizon. My personal feeling is, USA does not get our share of state funding because, for whatever reason, right or wrong, the other universities have a much stronger image and public relations program, and like it or lot, football is a big part in giving those universities those image. Itís either Auburn or Alabama, not Auburn or Alabama or South Alabama. We are not even in the picture when it comes to peopleís mind at the state level. I do think the football program does add another level of identity, of excitement, competitiveness and image-making for South Alabama when it comes to state politics, state funding, state authorization and those kinds of things. The second thing is the economic impact on the community. I read an article recently where football has a multi-million dollar impact on the Tuscaloosa community, based on bringing in all those people. I think when it comes time for South Alabama to get into football, we are going to make sure that the City is involved in a way that can be strongly supportive to facilitate USA going into football. I know that there are many faculty members who are worried that football may detract and take money from academics. I really donít see that around the country. I donít see academic suffering substantially. I think if we get our fair share from the state legislators, we can improve our academics and have football.
Q: In answering my last question, you mentioned a number of improvements on quality of life of Mobile. Maybe itís time to ask you about the state of the City.
Dow: I think the state of the City has dramatically improved after a decade of very focused hard work. If you look at economic development and job creation, we have dramatically diversified our job base. We lost some jobs in the pulp and paper industry, but we now have a high tech steel industry; and itís not a coal burning plant, itís an electric plant. The biggest disappointment I have was the inability of our community to recognize the importance of properly funding the public schools, which can lead to high-tech, cleaner, and higher-paying jobs, and that left us kind of weak when it comes to that. If you look at downtown redevelopment and tourism, you know our history museum is funded and itís going to be completed within a year. The GM&O building is funded for a transportation center with a downtown trolley. I think you will find this year that the Battle House will come back in all its glory as a four-star hotel. We get the first $5.8 million right now for a cruise ship dock and maritime center on the waterfront, and I think that project is going to brand Mobile to be a water-front destination city, on the same level as Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore, and New Orleans. I am very comfortable to think that we are going to make serious progress in the next decade. In the area of quality of life like sports and recreation, I am very proud. With the amenities we are gaining, we are able to bring in a lot of tournaments, like tennis tournaments because we have the largest tennis competition site in America with 50 courts. Several things we are looking at right now include a soccer complex. We have a feasibility study in progress for an in-door swimming facility. If we have the facilities, we can bring tournaments in to fill up our hotels and restaurants, and they can help us pay for those facilities and there wouldnít be a burden to us. The City is in partnership with USA to improve the track facility, and we have this magnificent Mitchell Center. I love the Mitchell Center. Itís a fantastic facility and the City doesnít even have to pay for it. I think itís a great addition to our community. If you look at entertainment, itís obvious with Bayfest and First Night Mobile that we are raising the bar in our ability to have large events for people to enjoy. We are beginning to bring in some high quality concerts, and I think that will continue to improve. We are now working to make the Jazz Festival more prominent, it kind of lost focus in the past several years. But most important in the area of art and culture, the City is making a significant impact right now. We have a History Museum that has classrooms, so we can bus students in to learn about the 300-year history of our city. We have a Science Exploreum that has classrooms and an educational component. We are expanding our library system; we are putting in new libraries in Toulminville and West Mobile. The Cityís art museum is expanding with classroom space, so we can bus students to give them an educational experience about the visual art, hands-on experience that we hope would ignite a cultural fire in the kids. In the school system, kids do not get much exposure to art and culture because we are underfunded there. I feel l the efforts we are making along those lines add another layer of educational opportunities for our young people.
Q: Tells us about the efforts regarding the Saenger Theater.
Dow: The City purchased it from the University of South Alabama principally because USA now has a Performing Art Center and the Mitchell Center on campus, and thatís a lot to chew on. The Saenger is going to lose focus. I knew it and the university knew it. So the City purchased it. The Bedsole Foundation is underwriting the operating cost, and the City will take care of the capital cost to turn it into a performing art center. The opera and the symphony are moving into a building right next to it and connected to it. We have an art gallery right across the street from it, we have the Cathedral Art Square. Right now we are looking at putting a contemporary art school in the downtown area that will actually hand out degrees, to foster more professional art participation and raise the quality of art. Savannah did this a few years ago with one building at the beginning in the downtown area, and it now has 22 buildings in the downtown area that attracts students from all over the world. I think a contemporary art school is an important thing that is yet to come thatís going to add a life, a heart and pump if you will, to the downtown area, to bring students and art and culture to the downtown, and if you add that to the history museum and the transportation component that we are putting down, plus the waterfront development with the cruise ship dock, you will have a dramatically different city.
Q: There are people who say city government spending should be concerned only with providing police and fire protection, not arts and culture, especially when the salary for policemen is low and the city is losing them to the county.
Dow: I think itís similar to a family. You have a family budget. You can say the priority is for a bigger house or a bigger car; you donít care if the kids have opportunities to get involved in arts and culture or have entertainment, or if they are idle and have nothing to do so they might get involved in gangs and drugs. Thatís what happens to a community if you look at it from a broadbase perspective. The money that we are spending on quality of life, giving youth and family more opportunities to enjoy themselves and to keep families together, keep the kids out of harmís way. Itís a very necessary expenditure. As a matter of fact, I call it a crime prevention technique that is money well spent. Let me give you a good example. Before we started doing all these kinds of things, juvenile crimes and juvenile violent crimes are rising at a pretty dramatic rate. Over the last few years our youth violent crimes are down 50 percent, so instead of having to expand the youth detention center and build a very large jail to put more problem kids in, we now have empty beds in the youth center. Those monies are better spent in crime prevention.
If you look at the police and fire departments, we built two new fire stations and we have new fire trucks that are state of the art. As for the police department, our budget supports 200 new officers, and they have state of the art computer equipment and databases to help them do their work. You know we have distributed police precincts over the city, and we are doing a much better job today at training our officers. With violent crimes being down 50 percent, we must have done something right with regard to police expenditures. People are always saying, ďMike, the policemen are not being paid enough.Ē Well, policemen are never paid enough. All over the country policemen are underpaid, and not just in Mobile. Our public workers have always been paid less than those in the private sector. Personally, I think itís wrong. But if you look at the public sector, what they typically have got is an almost union-like status of life-time job security, and the benefits, especially the retirement benefits, are extremely good. Iíve got people retiring before they are 55 years old and getting 60 percent of their salary for life. So the benefits in the public sector are pretty strong even though the wages are lower.
We are now paying our entry level policemen equal to the salary of Montgomery and Huntsville; thatís not good enough but at least comparable at this point. Last year we raised the entry level pay by 10 percent, and we also pay up to 15 additional percent to policemen who got college degrees. I think weíve made a dramatic impact in raising the quality of policing, supporting and putting more money in the police department, increasing from $34 million to $60 million. There has been no money spared in policing.
Thereís a whole new methodology going on in policework. We went to community policing with distributed precincts and began neighborhood meetings, and weíve got enhanced neighborhood police. Several years ago we began hiring social workers in our precincts. When young people are beginning to get into a cycle of crime, the probation officer, the juvenile police officer, and the social worker go into their homes and sit down with the parent and kid, and ask ďWhatís happening? Do you know where you are heading? We want to help you get out of the cycle.Ē That has a very strong impact on parents, and they are responding, like whereíve you been, this is wonderful, those kinds of things. We have created a separate division in the police department called community services, and we have created a commander position, and we are going to put someone in charge of community services with the same level of authority that we have as arrest and detention and patrol. That person is going to be responsible for crime prevention, going into the neighborhood, putting strategic plans together with a youth component at the precinct level, and getting our precinct officers involved with community people at the neighborhood level, so they can play an active role in preventing crime as opposed to just arresting people. Our police department is excited about that. Twelve years ago we got into the leading edge of community policing by bringing in Ruben Greenberg, and Chief Sam Crochran has learned a great deal in his years of policing under Harold Johnson and the whole community policing concept. Chief Cochran is ready to take up the task of crime prevention and he is very dedicated to it. Weíve got a lot to accomplish, a lot of training and a lot of changing of attitudes. Policing is a tough business, itís very dangerous to the young officers. They get very little gratitude and are underpaid. Somehow we have got to change the whole paradigm of the policing environment where the community is doing a larger share of the work, take some of the responsibility off the officers, and making the community a safer place on their own initiative, because the policemen cannot do that all by themselves. I think we are heading in that direction. At some proper time, perhaps you can take a closer look at that. Quite frankly, I am disappointed that this has not been looked at closer by other media.
Q: My last question, whatís on your plate for the year 2000? Any special projects that you will be involved in?
Dow: Iím going to be working very hard in the environmental area because I think a sharper focus on industrial recruitment will pay off results, and thatís going to necessitate proper funding of public education; we canít get off from that. You see, the problems we have is that weíve got to change our identity so that when [job] leads come into the state, that we could become identified as being worthy and being qualified to bring those companies like Honda down here. I am going to stay focused on the quality of life situation. We need to make Mobile a fun place to live, comparable to cities like Savannah, Charleston, and Baltimore. Those are my goals. And when I get there, then maybe I can start considering retirement. You know I have been in this job for ten years, and this is my eleventh year. When I was in Baltimore about a decade ago and talked to Mr. Sondheim, who is really the inspiration for development in Baltimore, and he said, ďMr. Dow, youíve certainly hired an excellent company to draw your conceptual masterplan. I really liked what I see happening in Mobile. But my advice to you is, donít get discouraged.Ē He said these cities take twenty years to turn around, once youíve got windows boarded up and once the activities stopped. He said youíre going to have a long road ahead of you to get your city to where it needs to be. I feel very comfortable in the fact that we have done a great deal in the last ten years to take us where we are, and I think in the next ten years, you will see nothing in comparison to whatís fixing to happen. I think our best ten years are ahead of us. I am beginning to get private-sector people come in to make investment now without asking the city for an arm and a leg. Weíve set a base and got some momentum and leverage started, and I think you will see a tremendous private sector participation as we go forward.