Hamilton County mayor 'shocked and disappointed' over reaction to Chattanooga Lookouts stadium funding proposal

Staff file photo / The U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site is seen looking north from Lookout Mountain in the South Broad District in Chattanooga.
Staff file photo / The U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site is seen looking north from Lookout Mountain in the South Broad District in Chattanooga.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he's "shocked and disappointed" over remarks from a pair of state legislators over a letter seeking funds for a new stadium primarily for the Chattanooga Lookouts.

"The appearance was that it was something that was new and nobody knew about the process," Coppinger said in a telephone interview on Friday afternoon. "I know a lot of work has been done on that."

In the Jan. 5 letter obtained by the Times Free Press, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly outlined to Gov. Bill Lee a request for $20.8 million for a multiuse stadium primarily for the minor league baseball team. Of the amount, $7.3 million was sought for environmental clean-up of the proposed site of the facility - the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry tract in the South Broad District.

Coppinger said the money is not just for a ballfield but would leverage "literally hundreds of millions of dollars in investment" around the facility in retail space, offices or other development. Also, the project would mean turning the rundown foundry site into a gateway for Chattanooga from Interstate-24, he said.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, had said in a Times Free Press story Friday morning that there was "really no discussion about the stadium" with legislators over last summer or fall, and then Kelly's letter popped up earlier this month.

While there was discussion during last year's legislative session as Knoxville pursued and ultimately landed state funds for a stadium project, "we'll look at it just like we did last year, but we haven't seen a formal proposal that I'm aware of," Watson said.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, termed the stadium project "a hard sell." He added that "it's going to be a pretty steep hurdle" to give away tax money "just to have the baseball stadium move down there." The Lookouts currently lease their existing ballfield in downtown's riverfront.

Coppinger said his signature wasn't on Kelly's letter to the governor because he wasn't asked. But, he said, he and Kelly have had "a lot of discussions."

"He was just trying to put in motion for what the next steps should be," Coppinger said. "I hate it got misunderstood or misinterpreted."

He said that if the discussion was just about a ballpark, he'd "have to think hard about that. But I don't have to think hard on something we've been able to do successfully here in creating jobs and growing the county."

Watson said in a phone interview Friday afternoon after hearing of Coppinger's comments that while the concept of a stadium has been discussed for several years as well as the clean-up, no one to his knowledge has offered a detailed proposal.

"All I was saying was that we get that you want to do a stadium project. There needs to be discussion at the local level. We need to know what the specific plan is. I don't think that's unreasonable," he said.

Watson said when legislators met earlier with Coppinger, the stadium "wasn't on his list of objectives, that I remember."

Watson said he's not against the stadium concept, but he hasn't been provided "a detailed plan or a plan of what the citizens will get out of the project."

Gardenhire said Friday afternoon by phone that he, too, hasn't seen a specific proposal.

"I haven't seen one solid proposal," he said. "We've yet to see any money figures come forward from the city and county."

Also, Gardenhire said the Lookouts ownership group is heavily from Atlanta and "made up of bankers and private equity people." He said he'd heard "they were going to put a stadium down there anyway without help."

Already, Gardenhire said, the state is paying more than $35 million to redo Interstate 24 exit ramps near the foundry site, which is owned by a group of local business people.

"Everyone loves the Lookouts," he said, but "why subsidize people in Atlanta?"

Coppinger said he doesn't know what stadium details may look like when it comes to how the city and county will contribute to the project, adding that will have to be determined.

But Coppinger said the foundry is in a blighted area and the stadium would jump-start economic development there. He said he visited minor league stadiums the Lookouts ownership group built in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbia, South Carolina, and had seen the development that occurred around those ballparks.

"I hope all sides keep an open mind as we go through that process," Coppinger said.

Watson said what's next is for Kelly, or both Kelly and Coppinger, to put together a proposal and show the plan in detail, how much the city and county are putting in and the proposal to fund it.

"To meet us and give more detail and a presentation of what they're asking for," he said.

Kelly's letter said that Chattanooga "has the opportunity for a transformational community project." He said the stadium could help redevelop the 141-acre site and bring in $1.5 billion in private development.

Also, Kelly in the letter requested the governor's support for legislation related to the use of sales taxes generated at the new stadium. The idea is to use proceeds from the sales tax to pay off bonds, which could be issued to support the project, officials said.

"The city and the county are negotiating to fund a new stadium that will be used by the Lookouts and for many other events throughout the year," the mayor said.

Kelly said the Lookouts are in need of a new facility to replace aging AT&T Field to stay in compliance with Major League Baseball standards. The Lookouts avoided MLB contraction when the number of minor league teams were reduced at the start of the 2021 season.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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