Bradley Byrne was a bit surprised a little more than a decade ago when his friend, businessman Sandy Stimpson, talked to him about Mobile’s 2013 election.
“He called me up about a year before and said, ‘I think I’m being called to run for mayor,’” recalls Byrne, president and CEO of the Mobile Chamber. “I said, ‘Well, I think that’s crazy, but if you’re crazy enough to do it, I’m crazy enough to support you.’”
Stimpson surprised Byrne and others when he won that 2013 election against a popular incumbent, Sam Jones. And then came another surprise.
“While we knew he was going to be a good mayor, we had no idea he was going to be this good, a truly great mayor,” Byrne says. “We’re just blessed to have had him this last almost 12 years.”
That’s a common refrain among supporters of Stimpson, now in his third term as mayor of Alabama’s second-largest city. During his administration, Mobile’s finances have turned around, recent annexation has made the city larger, and major projects such as moving Mobile’s commercial airport to downtown and building a much-needed bridge across the Mobile River are coming to fruition. Most recently, Stimpson announced a $100 million development on Mobile’s riverfront.
Some have even gone so far to say Stimpson saved Mobile, though he dismisses that notion.
“I think that things are going well, but Sandy Stimpson didn’t save Mobile,” he says. “We’ve been able to build upon a couple of decades of people laying the groundwork. Mobile was kind of known as the city of perpetual potential, and when I look at the energy (former mayor) Mike Dow had and the things Sam Jones did and then what the Chamber of Commerce did, we were just somewhat at the right place at the right time.”
When Stimpson ran for mayor in 2013, he brought with him a nearly 40-year career in his family’s lumber manufacturing business, a background that came in handy leading a city that was struggling financially in the wake of the recession.
“My business background helped me and our team make some decisions that I think have been beneficial,” says Stimpson, pointing to reducing debt by about $150 million, fully funding police and fire pension plans by 2026 and, by 2030, Mobile being out of debt. “We’ve been able to generate an operating surplus nine of the 10 years so far that I’ve been here.”
Shoring up Mobile’s finances laid the groundwork for what was to come, Byrne says.
“Once they got the city in a better position financially, that opened a whole lot of doors,” he says. “There was a lot he couldn’t do in the beginning because the money wasn’t there.”
But a couple of years into the Stimpson administration, Mobile approved a penny sales tax to be directed toward capital improvement projects, and with the money raised from that, infrastructure, parks, paving, drainage and other projects were completed around Mobile.
“All across the city, people started seeing these projects,” Stimpson says. “It started changing attitudes, I think, and people feel like someone cared about their district. That had a lot to do with buy-in to what we were doing.”
With that as a foundation, more followed, with very visible projects like the annexation vote, the relocation of the airport from West Mobile to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley downtown and more.
It’s a “golden era” for opportunity in Mobile, Stimpson says.
“Between now and the end of 2025, these are the things that will happen,” he says. “The channel going into the Gulf of Mexico will be widened and deepened, and it will be the deepest channel in the Gulf of Mexico for ship traffic. We will have completed the current phase of the container port…. Airbus will have completed the third Final Assembly Line, setting in motion them doubling the production of aircraft from 10 a month to 20 a month. And by the end of 2025, we will be flying commercial flights out of the new airport.”
And then there’s the bridge, which will be the catalyst to maximize the benefit of everything Stimpson just listed.
“We’ve got to be able to move traffic up and down I-10 without it being a bother, and that’s why we are grateful to Gov. Ivey for keeping it a No. 1 priority,” Stimpson says.
“There will be several billion dollars invested by the time you look at the money being spent at the port, the money spent at the airport, the money being spent by Airbus and Austal,” he adds. “All these balls are in the air, but it comes down to infrastructure, and the infrastructure has got to work to maximize the potential for all of them.… We’re on track now. There are a few more hurdles to cross on the bridge project, but if those hurdles are crossed, then by September of 2024, we can actually see construction begin.”
It all adds up to huge momentum in Alabama’s Port City.
“I’ve got small quibbles with decisions he’s made here and there, but overall, I’ve said publicly and privately numerous times I think he’s the best mayor of a city this size that I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Quin Hillyer, former chief editorial writer for the Mobile Register and now deputy commentary editor for the Washington Examiner. “He has just on every level improved the service, the responsiveness, the ambition of city government to systematically address the needs of the city.”
That doesn’t mean Stimpson has no opposition. Annexation was voted down before it finally passed, he has struggled to get the Black voters to vote for him, and some other changes his administration has pushed have been a “heavy, heavy lift,” according to the mayor.
“Part of it comes from needing a super majority, 5 out of 7 votes on the city council to pass anything, but part of it is some people aren’t out there embracing change,” he says. “I feel the changes we have made have been for the better.”
Repeated efforts to reach those who opposed Stimpson in elections or on specific issues to comment for this story were unsuccessful. And Stimpson’s supporters say there just isn’t a lot of organized opposition out there, even when it comes to race, a longstanding subtext in Mobile, as in other cities.
“I do think that in a lot of ways, Sandy Stimpson has lessened racial political divides in Mobile,” Hillyer says. “The city council seems more cordial and united than any that I’ve seen in 25 years. Not to say they agree with each other on everything, but there seems to be more of a sense of common purpose and certainly more of a sense of common purpose that supersedes race. And I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
Jo Bonner, president of the University of South Alabama, says that it has been a goal of Stimpson’s from his first election to bring Mobile together.
“He really wants to be a unifier,” he says, pointing to Stimpson’s One Mobile platform. “He has worked his heart out to serve all of the community.… I think people see his goodness, and they see his heart.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Bonner thinks the best may be yet to come for Stimpson and Mobile.
“I know what’s on the horizon for Mobile,” he says. “There’s not another city in the state, and very few in the nation, that have as much momentum going for them.”
A lot of that has to do with Stimpson, Bonner adds.
“He’s really one of the most impactful, visionary and successful leaders this part of the state has ever produced,” he says. “I’m pretty biased we have the best mayor in America.”
And Stimpson indicates he’d like to stick around to finish some things he has started.
There are the airport and the bridge, as well as a major renovation of the Mobile Civic Center that’s in its initial stages, with construction possibly starting within a couple of years.
“I would like to get the Civic Center done, and I’d like to make sure the bridge is under construction,” Stimpson says. “I also would like to see us have made significant progress in the area of affordable and attainable housing. Like so many cities, housing is one of the greatest challenges that we have, so making sure we’re headed in the right direction so we can execute in a better fashion the construction of homes is crucial.”
All of that to say Stimpson is leaning toward a fourth run for mayor in 2025. “Unless I say I’m not running, you need to assume I am,” he says. “I’m going to work hard the next year, and then I’ll have to make that decision.”
Right now, Stimpson is just pleased his city seems to be heading in the right direction.
“I’m glad to be a part of it, but I’m not going to try to take a victory lap,” he says. “There’s still too much left to be done.”
And that will be done by a team of people, not just Sandy Stimpson, the mayor says.
“One of my ongoing prayers is that God continues to send the people and the resources to the city of Mobile to transform it into the city He wants it to be,” Stimpson says. “We have a lot of the right people in the right places. The chemistry’s right, and now we just need to continue to make it happen.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama. He is based in the Birmingham office. Bill Starling is a Mobile-based freelance contributor.
This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Business Alabama.