Lookouts owner, city staff pitch new stadium to Chattanooga council as vote nears

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The former Wheland Foundry is the site of a proposed massive redevelopment on the Southside. The plans include a new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts as a centerpiece on the property, shown June 14.

Aiming to answer lingering questions, city staff, developers and representatives from the Chattanooga Lookouts appeared before the City Council on Tuesday to outline the effect of building a multiuse stadium on the blighted Wheland Foundry site in the city's South Broad District.

This is the second presentation council members have heard about the project in two weeks, the first of which came from city staff on July 12.

A new sports authority created by the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County government would borrow the $79.5 million needed to construct the stadium.

Assuming developers invest at least $350 million in a designated tax district surrounding the site, most of the project's cost - approximately 58% - would be covered by new property tax revenue generated on the dozens of acres of adjacent land, according to city staff.

The rest of the funding would come from a $1 million annual lease from the Lookouts, state and local sales tax revenue generated in the stadium, parking revenues and roughly $1.4 million apiece from the city and the county, a modest decrease from earlier projections.

Officials have said the County Commission and City Council are expected to vote on creating the special tax district and the new sports authority on Aug. 3 and 9, respectively.

Council Vice Chairwoman Raquetta Dotley, of East Lake, represents that part of the city and is a vocal supporter of the project.

"In my opinion, it's the kind of economic catalyst that you need for the area to keep the city going in a positive direction," she said during the meeting.

Dotley anticipates the redevelopment will have a favorable impact on the surrounding community and noted that the proposed tax district would help cover the cost of completing the Alton Park Connector project, a multiuse path along a former rail line.

Core Development in Nashville is already planning a roughly $160 million project on an 11-acre tract in that area. Andrew Beaird, Core's chief development officer, told council members that the company has been working with Perimeter Properties, the owners of the land, for about a year.

Beaird said the company was attracted by three things in that particular neighborhood: The new highway interchange, the third and final phase of the Riverwalk and the possibility of a stadium.

Phase one of Core's project in that area, Beaird said, involves developing about 30 condominiums, 3,000 square feet of commercial retail and 38 single-family townhomes on an approximately 2-acre portion of the land. The company has so far conducted more than $100,000 worth of due diligence on the site, he said, and it hopes to break ground by the end of this year.

The nature of the remaining 9 acres is still somewhat fluid, Beaird said, and will be informed by decisions city and county leaders make about the stadium. Beaird said the stadium and the associated tax financing district will accelerate the market's ability to provide an assortment of products and housing options in that area.

"It provides the opportunity for major permanent infrastructure to be put into place," Beaird said. "These things, given the trajectory of Chattanooga, are probably going to happen, but the opportunity we have right now significantly impacts the rate at which this happens and the product type that you will see in the short, mid and long term.

"There are constraints to South Broad. There's only so much time from our perspective in order to make some of these key decisions, so we're kind of waiting in the wings."

Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said she's comfortable with the information staff has presented to the council about the stadium's financing. She said there are two things she hears regularly from people in her district when it comes to growth.

"People say they don't want to be like Atlanta because they hate the traffic, and we don't want to be like Nashville because there's nowhere to live if you don't make a ton of money," she said.

Hill added later that she was concerned about unintended consequences stemming from the stadium.

"I don't know if we can really look to the development partners in the room to be leaders in the conversation about how we do better and how we protect our people," Hill said. "Something people talk about on the regular in this room is making sure Chattanooga is a place for people who live here, not just people who visit here - making sure that if you work in Chattanooga, you can afford to be part of Chattanooga."

Hill said she's heard a lot of urgency surrounding the effort, but public officials have work to do in laying the groundwork for a project of that magnitude. That includes thinking about zoning, impact fees and plans for public space.

"We've got to get way ahead of this on this," she said. "You all want us to be voting on this and giving folks the go-ahead on moving forward on some big, generational impact projects? We got to be ready to do our part in a big way or otherwise the North Shore is going to get cannibalized.

"We've got to protect the neighborhoods we have so that the people that live here, that have made Chattanooga a great place to live, get to be part of this."

Jason Freier, the managing owner of the Lookouts and CEO of Hardball Capital, told council members on Tuesday that the new multiuse stadium would bring a large number of attendees to the site and help galvanize development.

"This isn't merely theoretical," he said. "We've done this twice before with teams we own. We've also seen it done in more than a dozen other similar cities around the country."

Hardball Capital also owns the Fort Wayne TinCaps, a minor league baseball team in Indiana that settled into a newly constructed stadium in 2009. Before moving, Freier said, the team was in a venue similar to AT&T Field in Chattanooga, where the Lookouts play.

"We were drawing what the Lookouts draw now, somewhere in the mid-200,000s a year in terms of fans for baseball," he said. "We weren't really doing any other events because that's not what the facility was designed for."

According to data provided by Freier, the number of attendees grew after the team moved into its new location. From 2009-19, the average annual attendance for baseball games and other events has been 526,230. The project also helped spur millions of dollars worth of nearby investment in Fort Wayne, Freier said.

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