Hamilton County mayor goes to bat for new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / County Mayor Jim Coppinger discusses the future of the South Broad Street area on June 23, 2022, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hoping to clear up questions circulating in the community, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Wednesday defended plans to construct a new $79.5 million baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts, which proponents hope will spur upwards of $1 billion of development in the city's South Broad District.

"How many politicians will run down there to have their picture taken at the next election to say, 'Look at what I did'?" he said at the tail end of a four-hour County Commission meeting Wednesday. "When those buildings start coming out of the ground and they start paying taxes, everybody is going to start jumping up and taking credit for it."

City and county leaders formally announced the details of the project during a news conference last week at the abandoned former Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe site.

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, said Wednesday she's talked to constituents who believe the entire project will be funded with taxpayer dollars and asked Coppinger to clear up those misconceptions.

"The project will pay for itself," Coppinger said.

A new sports authority created by the city and county would issue bonds to pay for construction.

Officials have said most of the $79.5 million cost, approximately 63%, would be covered by new property tax revenue generated by private development on the site through a special district that captures the newly generated tax revenue, known as tax increment financing.

"This is the perfect example of what you use TIF agreements for is blighted brownfields and also areas that are depressed," Coppinger said.

The Lookouts would pay $1 million a year in rent, and lease payments for the multiuse stadium would fund 22% of the cost. State and local sales tax generated inside the stadium would cover 7% and parking revenues another 4%.

The city and county would each provide $1.5 million for debt service, representing 4% of the entire cost. Coppinger suggested that the county's portion could come from economic development fees gathered from previous incentive agreements.

Jim Irwin, president of New Properties of Atlanta, would act as master developer for the project and would serve as a gatekeeper for developers interested in building on the site. His company is also looking at potential projects.

Core Development of Nashville is mulling $150 million worth of new residential and commercial development near the proposed stadium.

Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said the questions people keep asking about the project are already being answered in meetings held every day in the county.

"So either people aren't putting the effort in to understand the project and what it will provide for our community, or they don't care to understand the project and what it will produce for our community, because it's against something else that they're not talking about," he said.

Officials have estimated that $350 million worth of development on the site would generate $40 million in new funding for Hamilton County Schools over a 30-year period.

Commercial development at the site will go a long way to address education facility needs in Sharpe's district, he said, where there are school buildings that are more than a century old and in terrible condition.

"(It's) critically needed in our community as we struggle with how to not only to have the revenue in place to satisfy the needs of a growing, expanding community while also investing in facilities that already exist," Sharpe said. "We failed at that frankly for the last 40 years or more, and we need to get it right."

Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, said during the meeting that he's not adamantly opposed to the stadium, but he continues to have questions. The city and the county, he said, would end up guaranteeing the 30-year bond issued to pay for the project.

"Who knows where that $80 million is going to escalate to before the thing is built?" he said. "Have we got any guarantees from Core Development or Jim Irwin about when they're going to break ground? I haven't heard that."

He also said there hasn't been an economic impact study completed on the site.

"That's an important critical step of being a fiduciary of the taxpayer's money to determine whether this thing really does pay for itself," Boyd said. "What happens if in two years there's another COVID outbreak and the ball stadium is shut down again?"

Coppinger asked that people keep an open mind about the project.

"I always call this the 'silly season,' and it is, anytime there's political campaigns," he said. "It really disturbs me when people who speak out about this have never once come and asked or picked up the phone and said, 'What do you think about this? What are you doing?'"

Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Adams told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Tuesday that school maintenance needs have been the most consistent priority among voters, but he has also heard concerns about the stadium.

Although Adams was initially skeptical when the county was looking at using some of its federal pandemic relief funds for the project, the county's commitment is now roughly $1.5 million.

"When I tell folks that and that the return on investment is significant and it's going towards our schools and we can use that money on maintenance and replacement on our schools, they become less hesitant," he said.

Republican mayoral candidate Weston Wamp has continued to raise concerns about the project.

"Over 30 years, we have built two stadiums and now have a proposal for a third in Downtown Chattanooga," he said on Twitter on Sunday. "In the same timeframe, we have closed two great public high schools in the vicinity of Downtown and built none. It's no mystery why public education in the city is failing."

Wamp and Adams will face off Aug. 4 in the general election to replace Coppinger, who is not seeking re-election.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.