Knoxville and Chattanooga are similarly sized cities that have each announced intentions to construct brand new baseball stadiums for their respective minor league teams, the Tennessee Smokies and the Chattanooga Lookouts.
The projects have a number of similarities, but Republican Weston Wamp, who is running to replace outgoing Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, believes the differences demonstrate some glaring deficiencies in how city and county leaders have approached the plans in Chattanooga on the former Wheland Foundry site.
"Several of my closest friends and biggest supporters are among the local Lookouts team owners hoping to see a new stadium built, but as I have explained to them, the proposed stadium on the Wheland site is being rushed in a haphazard manner when compared to how Knoxville has handled its very similar stadium project," Wamp said in an email sent to local elected officials. "Rising interest rates and unpredictable costs of construction continue to pose challenges for their stadium, and we will encounter the same issues."
Wamp is making this argument as he enters the final month of campaigning against Democrat Matt Adams. The winner of the Aug. 4 election could end up stewarding construction of a $79.5 million stadium in Chattanooga's South Broad District.
Wamp sat for a two-hour interview Thursday with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He attacked the project fundamentals, saying revenue estimates were overblown, risks were understated and community benefits at the site were likely to happen with or without public support of a stadium. He said he was not categorically opposed to the project but thinks more questions should be raised.
He offered a list of projects he might rather see there, including a school or even a botanical garden. He estimated the real project cost at $200 million, not the $79 million cited by city and county officials. But comparisons to Knox County's project were at the center of his argument.
The Smokies are located in Kodak, Tennessee, which is roughly 30 minutes from Knoxville. City and county officials have estimated that the total cost of their new stadium in Knoxville would be about $80.1 million, according to an FAQ the city has posted online. That includes $5.8 million developer Randy Boyd, the owner of the Tennessee Smokies, has committed for construction costs and overages. Boyd has also offered a commitment of at least $142 million in private investment near the new stadium, Wamp said.
The Chattanooga proposal, in comparison, lacks such upfront private investment, Wamp said.
Unlike the project in Chattanooga, which will benefit from state sales tax revenue generated in the stadium but was otherwise unable to secure state funding, Knoxville has also managed to obtain a $13.5 million state grant, Wamp said.
According to the city of Knoxville, the Smokies will pay an annual lease of approximately $1 million. That's similar to the rent the Lookouts would pay for the new stadium in Chattanooga, but the Lookouts lease also has an escalator that increases each year.
Wamp also argued the process in Knoxville has been more transparent. A few months after Boyd proposed the development, the mayors of Knoxville and Knox County created a sports authority in December 2020 that has held a few dozen public meetings in 2021 and 2022, he said.
"It's just how government should work in 2022," Wamp told the Times Free Press on Wednesday. "Our process, if there is one, looks nothing like this. This thing has been batted around. There's a rumor here, there's a rumor there, and all of a sudden it seems like they've rushed everybody to the goal line."
Knoxville Director of Communications Kristin Farley told the Times Free Press by phone Thursday that the city of Knoxville and Knox County have since authorized the sports authority to pursue $65 million in bonds for the project, but those have not yet been issued.
Although city and county leaders had initially hoped to host baseball games in Knoxville's new multipurpose stadium in spring 2024, they've now pushed that date to spring 2025 because of "global supply chain issues and a volatile construction market," the city said in a news release.
Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced details for the proposed Lookouts stadium during a news conference on June 30. It's an undertaking they hope will produce upwards of $1 billion in new investment on the surrounding land.
How they stack up
Estimated stadium costsTennessee Smokies: $80.1 million.Chattanooga Lookouts: $79.5 million.Stadium leasesTennessee Smokies: Approximately $1 million but it may be a little higher.Chattanooga Lookouts: About $1 million with increases over the 30-year term of the lease.Direct funding provided by local governmentsTennessee Smokies: Knox County and the City of Knoxville would each provide $240,000 annually for the first 10 years.Chattanooga Lookouts: $1.5 million apiece from Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga to cover debt service.Seating capacity for new stadiumsTennessee Smokies: Permanent seating to accommodate 7,000 guests, which could increase to 15,000 for a concert with chairs setup.Chattanooga Lookouts: More than 8,000 for minor league baseballFunding sources for the projectsTennessee Smokies stadium (total cost of $80.1 million):$5.8 million from developer and Smokies owner Randy Boyd$13.5 million economic development grant from the State of TennesseeSales tax from concessions and merchandise in the stadium plus private development would cover 60% to 70% of the stadium debt serviceRoughly $1 million a year in lease payments over 30 years from the Smokies$240,000 apiece from the City of Knoxville and Knox County for 10 years to cover debt paymentsChattanooga Lookouts stadium (total cost $79.5 million):Incremental property taxes generated through a TIF: $49,790,904Chattanooga Lookouts stadium lease: $17,500,934State sales tax generated in the stadium: $5,095,349Net parking revenues: $2,988,600City of Chattanooga debt service: $1,524,823Hamilton County debt service: $1,524,823Local sales tax generated in the stadium: $1,042,234Sources: knoxvilletn.gov, southbroad.info
Jermaine Freeman, the city's economic development officer, told the Times Free Press by phone that the city of Chattanooga already did the bulk of its community engagement in 2017 and 2018 when the original master plan was created for the South Broad District and the Southside Gardens community.
"It involved lots and lots of meetings with over 200 participants," he said.
It was during that reimagining process that a recommendation was made to revitalize the Wheland Foundry site and consider putting a multiuse baseball stadium there supported by a tax increment financing district.
"We've done a bunch of community engagement and we will continue to do community engagement now that this has been announced," he said.
Chattanooga's project is also surrounded by a significant amount of developable land, totaling roughly 120 acres. It's a footprint that is bigger than the one in Knoxville, he said, and the city already has a committed developer in the form of Core Development of Nashville, which has proposed a $170 million project on the land.
"That is just the beginning of what could potentially be on the U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry site and it's just the beginning because our site is so much larger," Freeman said. "For us, the sky is the limit."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger echoed those comments in a phone interview, adding that comparing the Knoxville and Chattanooga projects isn't like comparing apples to apples. He also reiterated the planning process for a project on the Wheland Foundry site dates back multiple years.
"I think it's a little unfair to come out now when you're in a political campaign misrepresenting to the public that there was never any transparency about that," he said. "The city continues to consult with community leaders, and I think they're doing it the right way."
The city and county plan to create a sports authority to borrow the money needed to construct the $79.5 million Lookouts stadium. They also plan to authorize a tax increment financing agreement to capture new property tax revenue generated on the site, which they say would cover 63% of the project cost.
The rest of the funding would come from the $1 million annual lease with the Lookouts, state and local sales tax generated in the stadium, parking revenues from events and $1.5 million apiece from the city and the county, which proponents have stressed encompasses just 4% of the cost.
However, Wamp said officials have deployed a lot of "smoke and mirrors" in describing who bears the actual risk for the project.
According to city and county leaders, local governments are only providing approximately $3 million in direct contributions to cover debt service, but the newly created sports authority will be borrowing the money needed to pay for the project. It's unclear who covers the overages, Wamp noted.
"It's $80 million in public money," Wamp said. "We guarantee the whole thing on the hope that in a timely manner the project is developed, the rest of the site is developed and pays for the stadium."
What would make Wamp feel better about the project? One, community members should have more time to give adequate feedback, he said. Two, funding from the state and the Lookouts would be a plus.
"If we got this thing to a point where the state was willing to make the same investment they did in Knoxville, I'd feel $13.5 million better about it," Wamp said. "And to be honest state government is in a position where, for at least one more budget cycle, they're going to have a massive budget surplus."
Wamp's opponent this August, Adams, initially had reservations about the project when county leaders were mulling the idea of using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. He now has a more favorable opinion of the plan.
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.
"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 told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.