Selling stadiums: Athletic facilities touted as economic generators in Chattanooga, East Ridge

When Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger supported efforts this year for a new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts baseball team, he says that what he was really excited about was the $1.5 billion in private development the facility was projected to bring with it.

"We're not just talking about a baseball field," he says. "It will jump-start economic development."

Whether it's Chattanooga or East Ridge, sports stadiums aren't just seen as stand-alone facilities, but rather are viewed by some as generators of a broad swath of economic activity. The new, multi-use $86.5 million Lookouts stadium was proposed for a 141-acre site of long-shuttered foundries in the emerging South Broad District of Chattanooga. Proponents saw it as a linchpin for reinvigorating a gateway into the Scenic City.

Early this year, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly outlined a request to Gov. Bill Lee for $20.8 million for the stadium to replace the minor league baseball team's aging location on the city's waterfront. Along with a $13.5 million contribution from the state, $7.3 million was sought for environmental clean-up of the proposed site, the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry tract off Interstate 24.

Also sought was the use of state and local sales tax revenue totaling $15.6 million, incremental property tax revenue of $19.4 million from anticipated adjoining development and non-property tax revenue from the city and county of $8.4 million in a 50/50 split.

Use of the sales tax revenue was seen as helping pay off an estimated $63 million in 30-year bonds for construction. Meanwhile, private money would have included annual lease payments by the Lookouts of $19.6 million over the period and $10 million in contributed foundry land from property owner Perimeter Properties. Private sources would have paid 35% of the total stadium cost, city and county estimates showed.

But while the state Legislature endorsed the state and local sales tax revenue concept, it balked at providing a direct contribution and the $20.8 million that was sought never made it into the budget. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, termed the request "a hard sell." He says the state already is contributing $35 million to remake the I-24 entrance and exit ramps in the South Broad area.

Gardenhire says that many of the Lookouts owners are investment bankers and private equity people from Atlanta.

"Everyone loves the Lookouts," he says. "Why subsidize people in Atlanta?"

But the new Lookouts facility proposal already had garnered interest from a Nashville development group eyeing $150 million in residential and commercial space around the facility. Core Development was looking at building 400 to 500 residential units and up to 20,000 square feet of neighborhood-scale commercial space on about 11 acres on the foundry tract.

"Opportunities like this rarely come along and require focus, collaborative leadership and vision to be fully realized," says Mark Deutschmann, the company's chief executive.

While the Lookouts stadium request stalled in the Legislature, developer Bob Martino's planned mixed-use facility in East Ridge around his Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer facility landed a $5 million earmark from the state for infrastructure development. In addition, Hamilton County agreed to provide another $1 million.

Martino, who plans $200 million in housing and commercial space along with the stadium, says the money from the state and county "will help us with a lot of improvements."

He says he has already made a lot of improvements at the 110-acre tract at Interstates 75 and 24 around CHI Memorial Stadium, where the Red Wolves opened play in 2020.

Martino says the $140 million first phase of development includes townhouses, commercial space, offices, apartments and condominiums. At least one more phase is planned for the property, he says.

"Residents will be able to shop, walk to dinner and enjoy a live professional soccer match, concert or other event all in their own neighborhood," Martino says.

Gardenhire says he was open to helping the Red Wolves. He says Martino has "already put a lot of cash into this thing and what he's doing. And that's one of my hangups about the property down by I-24 [downtown]."

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