November 6, 2016
GulfQuest: God is in the details.
We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.
– Dave Ramsey (1960- )
An American financial author, radio host and TV personality.
If there was ever a project where the details were ignored, where they got overlooked; it would have to be GulfQuest: National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s soon to be known as the federal government’s next boondoggle. The ship-shaped building blew its budget with years of cost overruns. It was somebody’s want that had no real public demand. The city agreed to step in and bailout its board of directors while it was still under construction. No doubt it was built with good intentions, a lot of money, financed with public debt and grandiosity. It’s the only ship to be built out of concrete and glass and somehow its’ builders thought it would float. I’m sure the Stauters and the Neguses who know a few things about building boats may have thought otherwise.
Of course, their fishing boats were nowhere to be found in this five-story contraption where the best part was catching the elevator down after a slow upward trudge towards heaven. While GulfQuest was launched in September 2015, it never touched the water and yet it’s already experienced rough seas and may have sunk. How in the hell did that happen? Anyone with a basic knowledge of boats or ships knows that having standing water in a ship’s hull isn’t good. When GulfQuest opened its doors the building’s hull held enough water to fill up a backyard swimming pool.
Like many of Mobile’s public projects, GulfQuest, a public/private venture was conceived and built with no consideration for the city’s past and present annual tourism numbers. Someone must have thought that bigger was better. GulfQuest was sold to the board of directors, to city officials as the next unsinkable ship. Where are Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet when we need them to make an appearance and draw a crowd?
The annual Senior Bowl game, which has been held in Mobile since 1951, has its office and museum in a two story historic building on Dauphin Street. The Mobile Sports Hall of Fame is currently raising money to build their new museum on the first floor of the RSA building. What made the “architects” of GulfQuest think that they could build a five-story building that the city could immediately support? Just like tourist passing through Mobile, Mobilians and even those living on the Eastern Shore didn’t pay the first visit.
In 2004 or ‘05, I got interested in GulfQuest after touring Virginia’s Mariner’s Museum, which is billed as “America’s National Maritime Museum”, in Newport News, with my late-father-in-law, several years earlier. This single-story 90,000 sq. ft. building tells the story of the Chesapeake Bay – its history before the American Revolution, during the Revolution and the Civil War, as well as, in the modern-era of steel-hulled U.S. Navy ships, commercial ships, fishing boats and sailboats. Since my first trip to Newport News, I have long thought that the coastal area, located on the Chesapeake Bay and the James River, reminded me of Mobile Bay and our delta. I got the same feeling when I walked through the Mariner’s Museum, years later. I thought this same project could be built and enjoyed, in Mobile.
A friend and I made an appointment with Dan Daly of Watermark Design Group, LLC. Dan served as the point man for the project and was head of this Thompson Engineering business unit. Watermark was given the task of designing some or all of the GulfQuest’s interior. Dan showed us the plan and to my surprise the document was dated “1995”. At the centerpiece of GulfQuest was a partial cargo ship where visitors could climb in and out of the different decks with a wheelhouse at the top. I was shocked at what I saw given my experience at the Mariner’s museum. Weeks later, we met with Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest’s “soon to be” first executive director, at his temporary office. I mentioned to him my experience at the Mariner’s Museum and how I liked what I saw. Tony was quick to put down their museum while stating that their patrons were dying off thus implying that the museum’s business model was in trouble. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but that museum which opened in the 1930’s is still open, today!
Years ago, while on my way to Atlanta, GA, I spent the night in Montgomery, AL with my late-great uncle, Philip L. Sellers. A Washington & Lee College graduate and a colonel in the Army, my uncle came home from World War II to become an investment banker. The youngest of five children, he would go on to become the family’s respected patriarch. Considered a southern gentleman by all who knew him over the course of his adult life, Philip served on almost every board in the capitol city as, either, its president or chairman. That night, I had hoped to get to spend some time with him, to pick his brain while we watched TV in his personal library. When I arrived at his Bankhead Ave. house, I quickly learned that he was headed to some social function and that I would be on my own until he returned. After he left, I looked around the guest bedroom, where I was sleeping, for something to read. In a stack of books was one on the biography of Winston M. “Red” Blount (1996). It was addressed to my uncle and signed by Red. I’m a fan of biographies and TV documentaries. With nothing better to do, I sat down and started reading the book.
Red and his brother started a construction company in the 1930’s with a bulldozer building dirt roads and fishing ponds in Bullock County, AL. Over the years, they became very successful in construction. At the height of their success, they built the Louisiana Superdome and the $2 billion King Saud University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was a brilliant man. In the early 1980’s, Red’s second wife, Carolyn sat on the board of a small theatrical troupe that operated out of an Anniston school gym without air conditioning during the summer months. What started in 1972 and was immediately panned by one critic went on to find success under the strength of its daring director. However, lacking financial support, the director asked for a meeting with Red Blount seeking $300,000 to keep the program afloat.
After reviewing their finances, Blount’s management team determined that the troupe needed $800,000. Red offered to build them a $10 million theater if they would agree to move to Montgomery. With a deal in hand, Mr. Blount, his son, an Atlanta-architect and several others boarded his private jet to visit four Shakespeare theaters located up north including one in Ohio to see how they were designed and operated. Red would go on to spend $20 million on the Carolyn Blount Theater, which was designed by his son and spent another $1 million creating a rolling English landscape with a pond and two black swans. Red hired a famous English landscaper to design the grounds.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) opened its doors, in 1985. Red asked my uncle to serve as its first Chairman of the Board. This world-class theater is one of only two in the world to fly the Queen of England’s flag over it. At the height of its success, the ASF performed annually for over 300,000 visitors coming from over sixty countries. If GulfQuest’s board didn’t make this same type of investment in time, money and energy visiting other maritime museums before settling on its “ship experience” concept, I think that was a serious screw-up.
A project the size and scale of GulfQuest should have had a world-class designer or firm involved instead local money and politics gave Thompson Engineering/Watermark Design Group the project. In my one trip through GulfQuest, I thought the exhibits looked like they were done by the same firm that did the children’s exhibits at the Exploreum. GulfQuest lacks a “wow” factor nor is there an emotional connection in anyway having grown up on the bay and fished in the Gulf. There were no Stauter-built or Negus boats or even larger fishing yachts in this museum.
The museum’s main point was that containerization was started in Mobile by Malcolm McLean. However, Mobile rejected his idea for decades while other ports embraced it, like Houston. Not until the 2000’s, the Alabama State Docks had only one crane and a smaller portable. The port only invested in cranes with the construction of ThyssenKrump’s steel mill and later Airbus. What hypocrisy and I hate hypocrisy.
This wasn’t a bunch of Democrats who screwed this project up, but instead rich Republicans who threw good money after bad. You have now burdened the taxpayer with this project. If you can’t pay off this debt, maybe you can at least humble yourselves by making a public apology. What a rare act it would be in nation full of problems where our personal and national debt is sinking our ship.
While Mayor Sandy Stimpson had no involvement in the planning, designing and construction of GulfQuest, since taking office he has failed to put together for a solid tourism plan to boost the annual visitor numbers in our downtown that supports everything from hotels, restaurants, retail shops and entertainment including GulfQuest. Instead, this new interactive-museum lived and died on its own merits. Stimpson has repeatedly shown a lack of a vision on many fronts and now it’s coming to haunt the board of directors at GulfQuest who got little or no support. With his campaign motto of “One Mobile”, he comes off as a civil rights leader who was 60 years, too late. In order to put together Map for Mobile, he turned to citizens for input while hiring a Montgomery consulting firm to give him ideas for improving pedestrian access across Water Street and for improving other parts of the city.
I will leave you with the following critique by another GulfQuest visitor and local resident…
It is a total disgrace calling yourself a museum. This is an overpriced game room for kids and should be called a playground. I was embarrassed to see almost a total lack of historical exhibits. They entire display does almost nothing to educate local or national maritime history. It promotes ship building and shipping business. It is obviously a propaganda effort for a few large entities The politics evolved to get the millions to construct this misleadingly named monstrosity had created a total lack of caring for what a museum should be. Otherwise the historical maritime structures of Mobile would have been prominently displayed. Nothing about Middle Bay or Sand Island Lighthouse is even in this so called museum. Nothing about using lighthouses and range lights for navigation is ever mentioned. Nothing about the first ports, what ships were used or what was being transported where is highlighted. I will not be back nor will the eight people who came with me.
– Name withheld
My one low-cost solution might be to add navigation flags across the top of the building for marketing purposes and improving visibility from I-10/Water Street exit. Maybe the museum can be re-purposed to celebrate Mobile’s rich maritime history with companies like Cooper/T. Smith Stevedoring, Waterman Steamship and Malcolm P. McLean’s Sea-Land Corporation.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival website; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alabama_Shakespeare_Festival
Copyright © 2016. All Rights Reserved. “GulfQuest: God is in the details.” by Ted Burnett
My other essays and videos can be viewed at my website – http://www.tedburnett.com. I can be contacted via email at – email@example.com.