UTC envisions intramural sports complex at historic Engel Stadium

Becky Browder, with the Engel Foundation, speaks at a news conference about bringing new life to the historic Engel Stadium as an intramural facility in this file photo.
photo Becky Browder, with the Engel Foundation, speaks at a news conference about bringing new life to the historic Engel Stadium as an intramural facility in this file photo.

Chattanooga's historic Engel Stadium could get a new lease on life as an intramural sports complex for students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga -- though the university will have to raise millions to upgrade and maintain the 85-year-old minor league stadium where baseball greats such as Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron once played.

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That's what university officials said Monday morning at a ceremony at which the Engel Stadium Foundation, a nonprofit group that leased the stadium and spent about $500,000 fixing it up, agreed to step back from management and act in advisory role while UTC "repurposes" the facility.

UTC's idea is to open up Engel Stadium to students and the surrounding neighborhoods. It is now closed except for special events. The stadium and its parking areas comprise 27 landlocked acres, UTC Chancellor Steve Angle said.

"This will be a work in progress. We do not have this figured out yet," Angle said during his turn at the podium at Monday's event. "I look forward to working with all of you to figure out the details here."

Engel Stadium always will have a baseball diamond, said Richard Brown, UTC's executive vice chancellor of finance and operations. But UTC could build an intramural soccer field next to it, since there's room inside the stadium for that.

He said UTC offers students indoor recreation opportunities at the Aquatics and Recreation Center, which opened in 2010 across from the McKenzie Arena. But there's very little green space for intramural recreation on campus -- which is something that a school UTC's size needs, Brown said.

"For what we're visioning, we're probably looking at [spending] $8 [million] to $10 million," he said. "We'll be fundraising those dollars and some of that will be student fees."

Brown didn't think student fees would increase to fund the stadium improvement.

UTC has owned Engel Stadium for about 15 years, after the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County gave it to the university.

The Engel Stadium Foundation took over management of the stadium during the filming of "42," a 2013 Hollywood film starring Harrison Ford about Jackie Robinson and baseball's racial integration.

"It expedited the filming of the movie by having a nonprofit dealing with the movie company," Engel Foundation Chairwoman Becky Browder said.

The foundation raised about $500,000 through the filming and donations. That, coupled with $1 million from UTC, made the stadium fully functional again, Browder said, through repairs to things such as plumbing, lighting and leveling the playing field.

photo Becky Browder, with the Engel Foundation, holds up a photo of Joe Engel while announcing a partnership with UTC, the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and others to bring new life to the historic Engel Stadium.

The foundation will continue promote the field's history and will seek funds for further improvements, such as "historic portraits of baseball legends to be placed on the outside of the stadium walls along O'Neal and E. Third Streets," the agreement said.

Monday's ceremony included lots of reminiscing about the stadium's storied past during speeches from UTC officials, Browder, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Tennessee's official state historian, Van West, who said saving Engel Stadium is as important to Chattanooga as was preserving the Market Street and Walnut Street bridges.

"I think this, too, is a bridge to a new future," West said.

He cited Joe Engel, the legendary Chattanooga Lookouts' promoter who named the stadium after himself, as "part of Chattanooga's long, distinguished history of entrepreneurship, of vision. Chattanooga always moves forward and gets things done."

Staff writer David Paschall contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.