What does the new stadium plan mean for downtown Chattanooga's future?

While there are concerns, many think South Broad growth will not drain central city, The Bend

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Traffic passes on Interstate 24 in the view from a doorway at the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry. Hamilton County and city of Chattanooga officials announced plans to develop the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site, with a new baseball stadium being the anchor. The event took place at the U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site on June 30, 2022.

More people moving to Hamilton County should help spur future growth around a new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium without hurting downtown, some business and government leaders said.

But concerns exist over whether the foundry project will siphon energy and investment from the central city.

Last week, the city and county revealed plans for using public and private money for a multi-use stadium, financed by the sale of 30-year bonds for $79.4 million in the South Broad District. Including donated land, the project estimated by officials from $89 million to $94 million is envisioned to ultimately spur more than $1 billion in nearby private investment on the old U.S. Pipe-Wheland Foundry site.

Keith Sanford, the Tennessee Aquarium's president and chief executive, said Chattanooga is growing "at a pretty good clip," citing gains over the past few years.

Sanford said the heightened desire of people to live downtown, and the surge in the number of new residences which have gone up and are in the pipeline, also will pull people from the suburbs.

"We've had four new restaurants over the last couple of months and a new hotel is planned," he said in an interview.

Recently, a new study found that more than three times as many people have moved into Chattanooga as have left the metro area so far in 2022, making it tops in Tennessee for the net inflow of new residents coming out of the pandemic.

The study of moving requests by the website moveBuddha.com found Chattanooga had 3.06 new residents moving into the six-county metro region for every person moving out from Jan. 1 to May 4.

Bill Kilbride, the Tennessee Valley Authority chairman, cited in an interview the example of how Chattanooga's North Shore has grown over the years across the Tennessee River from the aquarium.

"Economic development on the North Shore is supporting itself," said the former Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, also a minority shareholder of the Lookouts. "I don't see downtown being hurt."

While the North Shore and downtown's Southside are growing, a new study was completed last year aimed at finding ways to boost the riverfront district after its energy has flagged in recent years.

Planners came up with a bevy of proposals to draw more locals and daily use to the district such as adding affordable housing and businesses, reworking Broad Street into a better pedestrian corridor, enhancing public space and refreshing the Riverwalk.

Helen Burns Sharp, founder of the citizen group Accountability for Taxpayer Money and a riverfront resident, said that area hasn't been as vibrant in the past five years.

She wondered if new development on the foundry site will pull people away from the central city and "just be relocating where people will buy their wings."

"It's a concern," she said by telephone. "But at the same time, we seem to be vibrant enough as a city riverfront district that it can maintain its integrity and there be a new center at the stadium."

Sharp said the dilapidated foundry property "meets the slum and blight test" for certain government incentive programs and its redevelopment could be "a game-changer."

She said the site appears an acceptable location for a special tax district the city and county want to create to help finance the project, but she'd like to learn more specifics about that plan.

(READ MORE: New Chattanooga Lookouts stadium proposed in South Broad District)

To help repay the bonds, officials said they'll need approval from the City Council and County Commission for the special tax district to capture future property taxes around the stadium. Proceeds would cover an estimated 63% of the cost of the repayment of the bonds, officials said.

David DeVaney, who heads the commercial real estate company NAI Charter, said the city will need to be very creative concerning the reuse of the location where the Lookouts now play at AT&T Field in the riverfront district.

"We want the foot traffic," he said.

But DeVaney, too, noted the city's growth, and he termed the proposed new stadium project "a great step."

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the area's increasing population puts the city in an enviable position.

The proposed new stadium and the anticipated investment won't take away but rather enhance the city's riverfront and The Bend, the planned mixed-use redevelopment of the 120-acre former Alstom property on downtown's Westside, he said in an interview.

Hakeem said he foresees a series of hubs along the river including downtown, the Bend and the foundry site.

"I think it's one of these projects that will have us looked at as one of those shining cities on a hill," he said.

Emily Mack, president and CEO of the downtown nonprofit redevelopment group River City Co., said Chattanooga has seen tremendous growth over the past few years and following the newcomers are new businesses, restaurants and retailers opening in the city.

She said in an email that River City is committed to moving forward with the riverfront plan.

"In the coming months, River City Co. will bring together our Chattanooga community to develop a comprehensive, long-term vision for the current AT&T stadium area to guide future redevelopment opportunities," Mack said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Lookouts see hundreds of uses a year for new stadium)

Utilizing principles in the plan and paired with a real estate market analysis and community input, she said River City will explore potential land uses, density, public spaces, connectivity and infrastructure to support future redevelopment.

Christy Gillenwater, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's president and CEO, said each part of the city has its own assets, and she expressed confidence in leadership to push growth in those areas.

"We've already developed a plan of what should happen downtown," she said in an interview, citing the riverfront blueprint.

Hamilton County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said she was one of several government officials and business people who visited Columbia, South Carolina, in March. That's where a minor league team operated by the Lookouts' ownership is leasing a 6-year-old stadium that's seen $650 million in accompanying investments rise up nearby.

Smedley said the proposed new Chattanooga stadium plan "could be a good opportunity."

She said in an interview that she's not worried about downtown.

"The more attractions we have," she said, "the better."

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.