Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders have a new plan for a Lookouts baseball stadium that they think will power a vast revamp of old foundry land and serve as a signature gateway into the city.
If the plan receives all the approvals, the new stadium could be ready for the Chattanooga Lookouts' opening day in spring 2025, officials said.
The proposal by the city and county mayors unveiled Thursday calls for using public and private money for the multiuse stadium, 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.
The stadium, with a capacity for more than 8,000 people for minor league baseball, would sit in the 120-acre U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site off Interstate 24 in the South Broad District. That's the same location as a partially successful funding proposal taken early this year to the state legislature.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, standing on the foundry property Thursday morning before nearly 100 people invited to the site, said the Lookouts would become the anchor tenant in "an incredible opportunity to revitalize and reinvest."
"The time is now to get this done," he said, adding that the strategy has been proven in multiple midsize cities. "It's a golden opportunity."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the proposal isn't just about the ballpark but rather potentially attracting more than $1 billion in new residences, commercial space, restaurants and retailers to the property between Broad Street and Interstate 24.
"It's an eyesore right now," he said, calling the stadium a catalyst for attracting future investment. "It's not about the ballpark. It's about the development."
A new sports authority created by the city and county would issue the bonds to build the facility and oversee its construction, officials said.
To help repay the bonds, the mayors said they'll need approval from the City Council and County Commission for a special district to capture future property taxes around the site, an idea that already has drawn fire from one commissioner. Proceeds from the tax-increment funding district would cover an estimated 63% of the cost of the repayment of the bonds, officials said.
Officials are hoping to get the tax district and the sports authority created by the time Coppinger leaves office this fall, as next steps to lay the foundation for the stadium.
The Lookouts would sign a 30-year lease for use of the stadium starting at $1 million annually with increases over the period. The Lookouts, seen as the primary user of the facility, also would handle maintenance.
Jason Freier, the Lookouts' managing owner, said paying that sum in rent each year is "extraordinarily high for a minor league team." It will account for 22% of bond repayment, according to the plan.
"The reason is pretty simple," Freier said in a telephone interview. "We're on the cut list. We know we absolutely need to get this done to preserve the Lookouts in Chattanooga."
Major League Baseball has given minor league teams new guidelines for stadiums that the existing AT&T Field where the Lookouts now play doesn't meet, Freier said.
State and local sales taxes generated in the proposed stadium, along with net parking revenues, and $1.5 million each from the city and county for debt service make up the remaining 15% of bond repayment, officials said.
The donated land for the stadium by owner Perimeter Properties is valued at $10 million to $14 million, officials said.
The project would be expected to bolster new revenues for Hamilton County public schools, according to the mayors. Based on $350 million in new development, the school system would garner $40 million over the next 30 years. That would rise to $55 million with $500 million in development.
"Economic development drives our schools," Coppinger said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, on Wednesday criticized the transparency of the process and the effectiveness of contributing public dollars toward the construction of a sports venue.
"Until I understand what I think is factual information, I am going to have many reservations about casting a vote in favor of such an endeavor," Boyd told his fellow commissioners at a meeting of the panel.
Republican Weston Wamp, who is competing with Democrat Matt Adams in an Aug. 4 election to replace Coppinger, also has concerns about how officials will fund the stadium construction, the risks posed by a potential recession and how the project would affect the riverfront district and Finley Stadium.
HOW STADIUM IS PAID FOR:
- $49.7 million - Incremental property taxes - $17.5 million - Stadium lease - $5 million - State sales taxes at stadium - $2.9 million - Net parking revenues - $1.5 million - City debt service - $1.5 million - County debt service - $1 million - Local sales taxes at stadium Source: City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County
"What I'm encouraged by is that finally these negotiations are coming out of the back room, and they are making a presentation to the community," Wamp told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Wednesday, "because they have tried to bake this cake without any public input."
Adams said Thursday that his initial reservations about the project had to do with the notion of using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the new stadium, an idea Coppinger mentioned during a meeting of the Chattanooga Rotary Club in early June.
"I think the reality is we're going to see a lot of revenue come into the city of Chattanooga, to Hamilton County, and it will pay for itself," he said in a telephone interview.
There are still some details to work out, Adams said. That includes finding a new use for the site of the current Lookouts stadium and ensuring there's expanded access to public transportation to the foundry area.
The proposed funding plan doesn't include a direct state appropriation that was sought by Kelly early this year from the legislature.
He had asked for $20.8 million, but some local legislators balked at providing the money, saying the state is paying more than $35 million to redo Interstate 24 exit ramps near the foundry site, among other reasons. However, the legislature did enable the use of sales tax revenue generated in the stadium for the project.
The new plan calls for bringing in a master developer to oversee the entire project to help boost building around the stadium on the foundry property, which was envisioned in the South Broad District Plan adopted by the City Council in 2018.
Jim Irwin, president of New City Properties of Atlanta, said that as master developer, he envisions "epic beautiful potential" for the site for the city and county.
"When I see the property, I see Disney World," he said in an interview. "It's a tremendously exciting opportunity."
Irwin said he would serve as a gatekeeper for developers interested in building on the site, and his company also is looking at potential projects.
Already, Core Development of Nashville is eyeing $150 million in new residential and commercial development in a live-work-play environment adjacent to the proposed stadium.
Ann Weeks, a property owner in the area and president-emeritus of the South Broad Redevelopment Group, said the neighborhood was once bustling but then became "devalued and isolated."
"Let's not waste this opportunity," she told the visitors to the foundry site. "Through the stewardship of God's land, where there is an eyesore, it can thrive and residents can live, work and play again."
Coppinger said the idea of a new ballpark hasn't come up overnight, noting he and others took a trip in 2015 to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to see that city's new minor league park. The Tincaps, who play there, also are owned by Freier's group.
In March, Coppinger and Kelly were among a group of Chattanoogans who toured a 181-acre tract in Columbia, South Carolina, where another stadium housing a minor league team owned by Freier's group opened in 2016.
Officials there said that $650 million in development has sprung up so far along with the stadium, including new office buildings, residences and shops.
Staff Writer David Floyd contributed to this story.