Opinion: Proposal 'smart thing to do' if stadium leverages $1 billion or more in investment

Staff File Photo / The former U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry site has been proposed for a new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts with the potential for $1 billion or more of other development.

If the public and private officials involved in the development of the former manufacturing area between Interstate 24 and South Broad Street that was announced Thursday had waited for the alignment of the sun, the moon and the stars to move ahead, they'd be waiting a long time.

In fact, a perfect time never would come along.

But the announcement of a new $72 million baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts that would anchor potentially $1 billion or more of investment on 120 acres of the former U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry plants found the backing of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Lookouts' ownership, a master developer who takes on few projects and a Nashville firm already willing to put in $160 million into the area.

Plans are that a sports authority backed by the city and county would own the stadium, it would be managed by the Lookouts (for year-round use) and it would be financed by bonds paid for in part by a tax increment financing agreement approved by the city and county.

The development would reap millions of dollars in taxes for the city and county but, just as importantly, $40 million for county schools over 30 years on $350 million of private investment and $55 million for schools over the same period if the investment rises to $500 million. If it goes to $1 billion or more, as officials believe it could, the windfall for the schools would be even higher.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Lookouts see hundreds of uses a year for new stadium)

The city and the county would be out slightly more than $1.5 million apiece on the debt service for the bonds (though more if development for some reason didn't happen and less if development increased).

So, consider this: If you were an investor, would you risk $1.5 million on the chance of making $1 billion or more?

"It's the right thing to do," Kelly said at a recent editorial board meeting on the project with Times Free Press editors and writers. "It's the smart thing to do. It's a great deal for Chattanooga and taxpayers for Chattanooga."

"Why would you walk away from this deal?" asked Jermaine Freeman, economic development officer in the Kelly administration.

Much of the talk about development of the district has centered on the stadium, which would replace 22-year-old AT&T Field in downtown Chattanooga. But Coppinger and Kelly declared the stadium is not their main interest. The potential development of the 120 acres - "the two front teeth knocked out of a smile" in the gateway to the city, as Kelly put it - is the driving force.

"I'm a growth person," said Coppinger, "as opposed to raising taxes."

Several ticking clocks affected the timing of Thursday's announcement.

Moving forward "aligns with [master developer Jim Irwin's] time frame," said Charles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Chamber.

Minor league baseball is also awaiting a pre-end of year answer from the Lookouts on the disposition of a new stadium. Two years ago, minor league baseball contracted by approximately 40 teams. Chattanooga was on an initial list. Although it was moved off the list, baseball officials told the Lookouts they needed improved facilities, whether in their current location or elsewhere. Were a plan not be put in place, the team might be moved.

If the new deal moves forward, the Lookouts would lease the stadium for $1 million per year, an amount city chief financial officer Brent Goldberg said would be one of the highest in minor league baseball.

The potential for the entire area, Irwin said, is a "DisneyWorld of beautiful possibilities. I was hooked my first tour. It's a tremendously exciting opportunity."

Irwin said he wants to work with the South Broad community on what it wants to see in the area, but he envisions "a daytime/nighttime district" and a "true walkable urban environment."

We have been skeptical about the plans to date because so little about the stadium, its pay-fors and the specific overall scheme have been revealed to the public and because Lookouts owners had not said they would contribute to the cost of the stadium.

However, the Lookouts not only will be paying the aforementioned lease price but also will be responsible for bringing in non-baseball events for the park and for its upkeep. Their contribution will be considerable.

As to the project itself, in 2000, the city and county purchased the land at Enterprise South for development, and today it is the home to Volkswagen's U.S. manufacturing plant and many other industries. In 2021, the county paid $16 million to purchase McDonald Farm in Sale Creek for future development.

With the South Broad project, the city and county will be out about $1.5 million each (plus some taxes that will help pay for the stadium). In exchange, county schools will see - on the low end of development - $40 million from taxes, county coffers will swell from property taxes and sales taxes generated from the private development of the remaining 110-plus acres, and the eyesore that has greeted Chattanooga visitors for so many years will be turned into a live-work-play community.

We know Chattanooga City Council members and Hamilton County commissioners will have lots of questions, but we like what we've heard to date. Though the sun, moon and stars haven't aligned, it seems light may finally shine on the long-blighted area.