NASHVILLE - The three Republicans vying to become Hamilton County's next mayor were less than enthused or noncommital Monday about using county tax dollars for a proposed new Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball stadium and accompanying residential and retail development.
The project already faces an uphill battle at the Tennessee Capitol, where a request by team owners, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and retiring Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger for $20.8 million in state funding is so far going nowhere. Most state Republican lawmakers from the county are skeptical and not supporting the funding at this juncture.
The issue was one of a dozen or so pitched at businessman Matt Hullander, of Apison, real estate agent and County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, of Ooltewah, and entrepreneur Weston Wamp, of Chattanooga, who are competing in the May 3 county Republican primary, for which early voting begins Wednesday.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Matt Adams, who has no opposition in his primary.
Other issues discussed in the debate, sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News, included public education funding and priorities, as well as whether to merge the county and city of Chattanooga's sewer systems.
The Lookouts stadium has been a hot topic of debate locally.
"It's too early in the game for me to say whether I would support or do not support the stadium," said Smedley, who is chairwoman of the County Commission and who noted she flew out several weeks ago to see a comparable minor league stadium with accompanying development in Columbia, South Carolina.
"I could see how that could be a hub for a community," Smedley said. "However, I've not seen the [Chattanooga] plan, I don't know what all it entails. I think the stadium is the catalyst, but I mean, is there retail involved, housing, what is the plan? ... And what would be asked of the taxpayers?"
At this point, she added, "it would be very hard for me to go to the taxpayers of Hamilton County and ask them to shoulder the burden such as a stadium. So I need more information before I can say yea or nay."
Wamp noted he was one of the first to "express skepticism" about a new taxpayer-funded stadium for the Lookouts.
Hamilton County Republican mayoral candidates debate
"The economics of minor league baseball stadiums are dubious, questionable at best," Wamp said. "I think it's important to have for a community, before we make a decision, to understand that you don't have separate bond ratings. You don't get a bond rating for stadiums and for public schools. It does come down to a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul. And it comes in a community where public education had been mediocre for a generation."
Wamp said he would much rather push for the construction of a new high school aimed at providing students career and technical education such as the former Kirkman High School. Still, he added, "I"m not closed-minded to [the stadium], but I prefer to build schools over stadiums with taxpayer dollars."
Hullander said his position on a stadium is "real simple.
"I want to see the financial impact," Hullander said. "I'm not for or against until I see what the plan is. I want to see a master plan what all will be included, retail, multi-family. Just a minor-league stadium can't survive on its own."
He said while he can see a "lot of opportunities" with such a proposal, before he could commit he would like to look at the "dollars and cents" involved and what "makes sense" for Hamilton County taxpayers.
Sewers and wastewater treatment
One of the major local challenges is in sewers and wastewater treatment. Parts of Hamilton County are under a building moratorium because of sewer problems, and much of the county lacks access to sewer service even as demand for more home sites grows.
The city and county are under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency orders. There has been a study for nearly two years on consolidating the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority and the city sewer system.
Asked what his solution to the county sewer problems is, Hullander said "it's a hard solution, but it's one we have to address. Our sewer system is broken, and it needs a lot of work."
Hullander said in reference to a new water and wastewater treatment plant, the County Commission voted for a tax increase to help fund that.
"It raised our millage rate to bring the money in, but that money has not been used to address the problem," he said. "I would want to see a plan and then follow through with the plan. Because if we're going to continue to create jobs here and workforce and housing, and we've got industry that wants to come here, this is a problem."
Hullander noted Knox County has only 15,000 more people in its population than Hamilton County but has four sewer treatment plants, while Hamilton County and Chattanooga have one, with the city owning and operating that.
"We have one, and it's really old," he said, later adding, "So I think it's one of the biggest challenges that we have to face because it includes everything in how to move this county forward."
Smedley said, "Certainly we couldn't have four sewage treatment plants without increasing taxes, that's for sure. We're dealing with 50 years of neglect."
She said she was County Commission chair when there was discussion of consolidation.
"And if it's more efficient, we should do that."
But, she said, time should be taken to make sure a new location for an additional treatment plant is done carefully and not "nestled" in among a number of homes in a flood zone. She said the commission recently voted to spend $20 million on wastewater needs.
Wamp called the issue a "question of stewardship."
He said "of all strange outcomes, federal money, once-in-a-generation caused by a pandemic, is going to allow us to cover over a lack of stewardship in county government over the last several decades. It will allow tanks to be built that in all likelihood - as we update Moccasin Bend - will be able for a period of time, to form more of a long-term Band-Aid than a permanent solution.
"But I do think it's going to be acceptable for us to send our wastewater for a period of time there. I'm only 35, so I would like to see us over the next decade again get serious about a permanent solution for wastewater."
Schools infrastructure needs
Hamilton County has major issues with an estimated $1.4 billion in school infrastructure needs. The candidates were asked what actions should be taken and whether school consolidation should be on the table.
Hullander said the schools are in "bad shape."
"I was really surprised. We got a lot of work to do," he said.
He said a plan has been in place for years, but the question is following it. He noted that a quote that came in for the new Tyner Academy was more than $75 million.
"We choose these architects and kind of spread the love in the county. I want to go out and find who is the best architect that can help us to build schools that are efficient. And then we don't have to pick different architects and stick to the plan."
He said he agreed with Wamp's assertion that more technical schools are needed.
Smedley said she has a plan and has talked about taking some schools "grossly under capacity" and repurposing them into two additional vocational and trade schools, among other measures. She said during her tenure, the commission has appropriated $278 million for capital purposes.
Wamp, who serves on the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges and post-high school technical schools, said there is an opportunity to "rethink" what schools look like.
"I've played a role on that on the Board of Regents," he said.
He cited an idea he pushed for a school devoted to the logistics industry that will begin at U.S. Xpress and open up at Chattanooga State.
"I think that's an exciting possibility," Wamp said. "School doesn't have to look like it used to."
He said consolidating K-12 schools should be approached carefully, especially in rural parts of the county.
"You don't want kids to be getting on the bus for 30 minutes in the morning to get to their schools. But I bet you there are some City School graduates and Central School graduates watching tonight that went to high school in a big school, and it was run impeccably well."
One issue on which the three Republicans all agreed was how long, if they are elected, they intend to try to stay in as the top elected official in Hamilton County.
The answer? No more than two four-year terms, which would end a decadeslong streak among county mayors who have served at least 11 years.