Finley Stadium board members have a recent history of going across town to hire an executive director.
This time they went next door.
Paul Smith, who has served as general manager of the Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion since 2008, has been chosen to replace Merrill Eckstein, who is retiring. Smith will work under Eckstein during the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football season, which begins Thursday, and will take over Jan. 1, 2014.
"There have been a lot of people who have donated blood, sweat, tears and money to make this facility what it is today," Smith said this week. "I fully expect it to be hard, and I don't expect it to be overnight. We didn't turn the Chattanooga Market into what it is overnight. It has taken years, so I want to just get base hit after base hit and see how it goes."
Smith is arriving on the heels of Finley Stadium posting a $58,286.57 surplus for the 2013 fiscal year, which is a record for the 20,668-seat facility built in 1997. The stadium is in the process of having 45 televisions installed throughout the concourse area, stadium club, press box and skyboxes, but Eckstein has projected a break-even budget for 2014.
Eckstein has been Finley's executive director since spring 2009, when he left his role as Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee president. He replaced Frank Burke, the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts.
According to Stadium Corp. board Chairman Bryan Patten, Smith will have a $75,000 salary with "considerable opportunities for upside" if he generates additional revenue and creates more events.
"We interviewed three candidates who were strong potential managers or executive directors of the stadium," Patten said. "I am utterly thrilled with the selection of Paul."
The 47-year-old Smith grew up as a "faculty brat" on the McCallie School campus and used to sell Cokes at Chamberlain Field when current UTC coach Russ Huesman played for the Mocs. In 1984, Smith graduated from Page High School in Franklin, Tenn., and then spent 12 years in the automotive paint business.
Smith attended UTC in 1998 and graduated summa cum laude in sports administration in 2001.
While Smith is learning about his new role from Eckstein, his duties with the Chattanooga Market will be phased out. He will remain as general manager under owner Chris Thomas through October and will still be involved in November before his move across the street becomes permanent.
"It's been a tremendously successful six years, and I have a feeling at that last Market that I will be like a football coach crying at his last press conference," Smith said. "There are people I love and care deeply about, but it's not like I'm going away. The challenge of taking this facility to the future was enough to take me away."
Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6524.