If the Chattanooga Lookouts head south, what's the future of Hawk Hill downtown?

Staff photo / Members of the grounds crew cover up the pitching mound on opening day at AT&T Field on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chattanooga Lookouts were slated to open their season against the Rocket City Trash Pandas, however, inclement weather forced the game to be postponed.

If city and county leaders agree to back a proposed new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts, the current 6,382-seat arena built on Hawk Hill near the downtown waterfront could be abandoned by 2025.

The property beneath the downtown stadium site known as AT&T Field is owned by River City Co., the nonprofit downtown development agency that says it will soon begin planning for a new future for the 13-acre downtown site.

"In the coming months, River City Co. will bring together our Chattanooga community to develop a comprehensive, long-term vision for the site to guide future redevelopment," River City Co. President Emily Mack said last week in response to the announcement of the city and county plan to help relocate the Lookouts stadium.

River City has leased the site to the Lookouts since former team owner Frank Burke built the $10.2 million stadium and opened the baseball diamond in April 2000. Sitting along Highway 127 and overlooking both downtown and the Tennessee River, officials say the site could be redeveloped in a number of potential ways once the existing complex is removed.

"The stadium will go away, and River City will have that property as part of its master planning for downtown," said Jason Freier, chairman and chief executive of Hardball Capital, which owns the Lookouts and two other minor league baseball teams.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who is pushing a plan to provide city and county assistance to build a new $72 million stadium on the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site off of South Broad Street, said he sees "lots of opportunity for new development" after the current stadium is demolished and the site is cleared for other use.

RIVER CITY REVITALIZATION

River City has helped facilitate and support other downtown redevelopments, from the Majestic 12 theater to Miller Park to the Tennessee Riverpark. But the downtown agency has been focusing lately on spurring more residential and commercial development on the waterfront, which lost some of its luster in recent years during the pandemic and the growth of more entertainment venues on the Southside and Main Street area of downtown 10 to 15 blocks to the south.

Last July, River City unveiled its One Riverfront Plan to help foster new development and more affordable housing options along and near the downtown waterfront in Chattanooga. Mack said the new study about the future of Hawk Hill, where the current Lookouts stadium is located, will build on that waterfront plan.

"Utilizing guiding principles outlined in the One Riverfront Plan and paired with a real estate market analysis and community input, we will explore potential land uses, density, public spaces, connectivity and the necessary infrastructure to support future redevelopment," Mack said.

There are no plans yet for AT&T Field, which will likely continue to be used through at least the 2024 season, even if plans progress rapidly for building the new stadium to replace AT&T Field on the southside.

HAWK HILL

The Hawk Hill site could be used to provide more affordable or market-rate rental units or condominiums to help supply Chattanooga's growing demand for housing. The One Riverfront Plan proposed building several multi-story buildings on parking lots near the stadium. Darren Meyer of the planning firm MKSK, which helped draft the riverfront plan, said the land around the stadium creates an opportunity for mixed-use affordable housing with commercial space on the ground floor, including for minority-owned businesses.

The property also could be attractive for an office complex similar to the BlueCross BlueShield headquarters atop nearby Cameron Hill. The General Services Administration is seeking 2 to 5 acres downtown to accommodate the building of a planned 186,000-square-foot federal courthouse to replace the aging Joel Solomon federal building, although River City did not publicly indicate interest in submitting the property to General Services in response to the agency's initial requests for expressions of interest. General Services declined to identify what, if any, sites have been proposed for a new downtown courthouse.

Hawk Hill might also offer part of a site for a new downtown school. Weston Wamp, the Republican nominee for Hamilton County mayor, has been wary about plans to use government money to build a new stadium. But during his campaign, Wamp has pledged to work to build a high-quality technical school near downtown similar to what Kirkman Technical High School once provided.

"In the time since we closed Kirkman and City High School, we've already built one minor league baseball stadium," Wamp said earlier this year during his campaign. "However, there's been little serious discussion about building a new high school. Now is the time. We need a big, world-class, open-enrollment middle school and high school near downtown Chattanooga."

The current Lookouts stadium is also near the Creative Discovery Museum, which is undergoing a $10 million upgrade as part of its 25th anniversary. Henry Schulson, the executive director at the Creative Discovery Museum, said the museum is focused on completing its own renovation this year. But he said AT&T Field and its surrounding area "creates a lot of opportunities to explore for all of us."

REPOSITIONING FOR GROWTH

The Lookouts draw about 230,000 fans a year, and the baseball team is seeking to nearly double that attendance with a new and more attractive stadium with easier parking and access. Freier said a new stadium should boost attendance at Lookouts games and offer a venue for other sporting events, concerts and public gatherings.

Although the current stadium is located within walking distance of many of Chattanooga's downtown and waterfront attractions, the positioning of the stadium stands has created problems with afternoon sunlight in the eyes of many fans.

"It's just a terrible layout," Bob Warren, a civil engineer who lives on Signal Mountain, said last week after attending one of the Lookouts games at AT&T Field. "On many afternoons, some seats are facing the sun and are both hot and hard to see the game."

Freier concedes that the layout of AT&T Field is not ideal, especially during the summertime months before the sun sets.

The Lookouts owners, who bought the team from Burke about five years ago, can't fix the layout or location of the facility.

"What you can't do is change the structural problems, including the fact that the stadium is angled wrong," Freier said. "The vast majority of our seating is on the first-base part of the ballpark where the sunsets face those fans. Our attendance in April and May is always pretty good, but as soon as the sun started hitting faces around mid-June, the attendance has always shrunk."

One unlikely outcome for the site of AT&T Field is keeping it in use as a ballpark.

Fixing the current stadium is difficult "because some of the problems there are structural and can't be easily changed," Freier said.

Freier said if a stadium is designed right and the owners invest, the structure should last a minimum of 50 years and potentially longer.

"How long stadiums last depends a lot on how well they are designed and built on the front end and how well they are maintained on the back end," he said. "The reason that AT&T Field is only about 20 years old and is no longer sufficient to meet our needs is that it was not designed particularly well."

The original home of the Lookouts at Engel Stadium still stands on Third Street across from Erlanger's main hospital nearly a century after it first opened in 1930. But with aging facilities, the facility is rarely used today.

River City officials said they want to explore other uses for the AT&T Field site.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.