Chattanooga Chamber says business leaders support stadium, South Broad makeover

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / EPA and Chattanooga officials gathered July 6 to announce a grant that will go toward cleaning up the proposed Chattanooga Lookouts stadium site.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday touted wide support for redeveloping the South Broad District and plans for a new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium.

"We asked our top investors where they stood on this important project. An overwhelming majority are eager to show their full support," Christy Gillenwater, the chamber's president and chief executive, said in a statement.

According to the group, more than 150 business and community leaders have signed an ad that's slated to appear in the Chattanooga Times Free Press supporting South Broad redevelopment that includes a new multiuse stadium in which the minor league team would serve as the key tenant.

"As more people begin to understand the many benefits for the entire community, we invite them to sign on as well," Gillenwater said. "We need a new gleaming gateway to Chattanooga that welcomes people. It's time to talk realistically about how we appear at first glance when people approach downtown from Interstate 24."

The mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County have proposed the stadium that they think will serve as a catalyst for more than $1 billion in private investment at the old U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site between Broad Street and Interstate 24.

The stadium proposal calls for using public and private money, financed by the sale of 30-year bonds for $79.4 million. Including the value of 8 to 9 acres of donated land, the project is estimated by officials at $89 million to $94 million.

But Hamilton County mayoral candidate Weston Wamp has released a survey showing opposition to a proposed stadium. According to the poll by Spry Strategies, 58% of those surveyed oppose the stadium while 31% support it and 11% have no opinion.

Some 65% of voters believe the decision should be put on hold until after Sept. 1, when a new mayor takes office, while 18% say the project should not be put on hold, according to the survey.

"I think it's important to consider the complexities and ramifications of a deal this big at the same time that county government is going to transition," Wamp told the Times Free Press in a phone interview Tuesday. "That's been my focus since I spoke up a few weeks ago."

On Wednesday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who earlier questioned the accuracy of Wamp's survey, welcomed the business leaders' support for the South Broad proposal.

"There comes a time when leaders need to stand for progress," Coppinger said in a statement. "This is now that time."

He said that already there is $200 million in proposed investment by businessmen and women on the site.

"This is a moment after years of effort where all things have come together in support not only for an anchor for the South Broad Street development but massive economic development," Coppinger said.

"The reluctance of some to support this project is bewildering, but I suspect they also would have rejected our effort to redevelop downtown with the Tennessee Aquarium or the wise decision to purchase what we now know as Enterprise South, home to thousands of jobs. This project will also house businesses, retail stores, restaurants and homes. It is the next chapter in the evolving story of Hamilton County and it needs to happen now before this moment slips away," he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said he's grateful for the support of Chattanooga's business community, "which clearly recognizes what an incredible opportunity we have before us to revitalize the rusting eyesore currently serving as our city's western gateway."

"The bottom line is this is a great deal for the people of Chattanooga and Hamilton County that will generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue to support our schools and civic infrastructure, all without using one penny of existing tax dollars," he said in a statement. "I was in business for years, and let me tell you, deals like this don't come around every day - the time to move is now."

Gillenwater said that as part of an annual legislative survey, the chamber asked about support to keep the Lookouts in Chattanooga. She said that 78% said "yes."

Barry Ruffalo, president and CEO of Chattanooga-based asphalt equipment maker Astec Industries, said his family has been driving past the rundown foundry site for vacations since he was 6 years old on their way from Wisconsin to Florida.

"The dilapidated state of the site and its buildings has been burned into my memory for years," he said in a statement. "I'm in favor of doing something about it that would not only look better but would also have so many positive benefits for the city."

Gillenwater said she's inviting Chattanooga and Hamilton County to speak up in support of South Broad redevelopment. She noted that SouthBroad.info offers a place where people can add their names to the list of leaders who support moving forward as well as providing facts about all of the potential projects, an economic impact study and renderings.

The chamber CEO said there's a history of working in partnership "to make great things happen here in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and we're excited about these possibilities."

"The South Broad redevelopment project is a dream that has been decades in the making and now this is finally being realized - Chattanooga revitalized from the riverfront to Lookout Mountain," Gillenwater said.

She said that most people have had the moment that Ruffalo talked about as they drive into the city from I-24, "look left at the beautiful expanse of river, then look to our right and wonder why that property has yet to be redeveloped, especially with a city as prosperous and forward-looking as Chattanooga." Gillenwater said.

The stadium, with a capacity for more than 8,000 people for minor league baseball, would sit in the 120-acre foundry site.

Lookouts officials said they see hundred of uses a year. Officials said the facility can host family events, business gatherings, concerts, high school sports teams, holiday events and parties, and community health/fitness programs. When the multiuse stadium is not in use for events, the site is to be open to the public as a park where people can walk the concourse and picnic outdoors, according to officials.

"Now is the time for this project," Gillenwater said. "The potential prosperity spurred by this redevelopment has local business leaders championing Chattanooga's next transformative moment. We must move ahead together in partnership to keep up with other communities who are planning ahead," she said.

If the plan receives all the approvals, the new stadium could be ready for the Lookouts' opening day in spring 2025, officials said.

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