Opinion: Things we're missing -- like real discussion -- in the rush to build a Lookouts stadium

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The proposed site for the new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium is seen from Lookout Mountain's Point Park on July 6, 2022.

If you slept any at all last week, you might have missed news of the proposed new Lookouts baseball stadium in the South Broad Street area barreling ahead among local officials - even while much of Chattanooga and one of Hamilton County's mayoral candidates question the expenditure of nearly $80 million in public money to build a new sports temple. All this while developers and the Lookouts commit nothing upfront more than about 10 acres of donated land and standard yearly sports lease payments once the stadium opens.

What exactly might you have missed?

> You may have missed the fact that the size of the special tax district suddenly quadrupled from the original roughly 120 acres to 450 acres - and then again to 470 acres.

What's a special tax district and why do you care?

Local leaders are creating a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district to jump-start development and create a future revenue stream dedicated to paying off the 30-year bonds issued to pay for the stadium construction. This TIF will mean that if you own property there, your property taxes will be earmarked to go to the Sports Authority to make the city and county's debt payment (minus the usual amount of property tax that goes to schools). What's left out, of course, is the portion of your property taxes that normally go to public coffers and pay for police or fire or paving needs.

If property owners in the district aren't funding those normal and now additional police, fire and paving needs, who is? Well, the rest of us, of course.

> You also might have missed the verbal gymnastics of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who asserted that "not one penny of existing tax dollars" will go to the stadium. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's chief of staff, Brent Goldberg, during the county's Industrial Development Board meeting, practiced a similar smoke-and-mirrors trick. "None of this money comes from existing [property] taxes," he said


OK, break it down. The bond issue the city and county will get - think of it as the stadium mortgage - won't be paid off from the county and city rainy-day funds or property tax revenue from people who don't live within the tax district. No "existing" tax revenue - True enough.

Stadium backers also say they aren't planning to raise taxes to make the debt payments because there will be sufficient growth in tax collections from within the TIF district.

But, but, but. The "growth" in tax collections on what's now to be 470 acres, if it materializes, is earmarked to pay for the Lookouts' house (and normal schools money). We taxpayers outside the district are left holding the bag to pay for other general government services. Are they telling us no tax increase will be needed to cover increases in those services over the next 30 years?

> What you might not have missed in recent days and weeks, are all the accusations flying among the pro-stadium folks and the whoa-pause-think stadium folks.

It has become a campaign issue between our two county mayoral candidates. Republican Weston Wamp wants a pause and Democrat Matt Adams sees promise in the plan and has accused Wamp of having ill feelings toward the Lookouts over a years-ago job quarrel. Wamp denies this, saying he believes the assumptions on stadium plans don't add up, and our money would be better spent on most anything - especially education - rather than a sports palace for a team that may not be here in 10 years, much less 30.

Coppinger railed last month when questions arose and a poll showed most of us opposed the plan. Coppinger argued that he'd been working on this project since 2015 and the plan was initially taken to the public in 2017 as more than 250 Southside residents participated in a visioning/planning process that included a ballpark as part of the renderings.

"I'm really a little bit miffed at people who said they didn't know anything about this," he said. "Everybody knew something was in the works, but it just wasn't detailed information."

Well, here's the thing: It's not hard to see the public missed something.

Here's a pie-in-the-sky project made public five years ago that still wasn't detailed enough by the end of this June for anyone to know until a little over a week ago that the tax district was suddenly going to quadruple.

Maybe we missed something they missed.

We've been told since late June that about $350 million in new development - a little over a third of the $1 billion supporters gushed it might bring - would ensure debt payments could be made, all on that little bitty original 120-acre TIF district site.

We didn't miss our questions: We asked, what happens if that expected development doesn't come - because there's a recession or because interest rates overtake entrepreneurial risk measurements or because overruns in materials or labor costs arise. (See what is happening with the Knoxville baseball stadium project?) And we didn't miss their first answer: The city and county are on the hook. And so are we.

Might they, in all the rush, have missed something and now notice it? Is growing concern about development's ability to pay the stadium debt the real driver to expand the TIF district size?

It's just a thought on these sleepless nights when we're afraid to doze lest we "existing" taxpayers miss something.