Baseball, high school sports, soccer, concerts and charity events are among hundreds of uses a new stadium could host if plans unveiled Thursday for the Chattanooga facility are OK'd, an official said.
"It's really a multi-use entertainment venue," said Jason Freier, managing owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball club, in a telephone interview.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Thursday revealed the latest proposal for a multi-use stadium in the city's South Broad District in which the Lookouts are seen as the primary tenant.
Financed with $79.4 million in 30-year bonds to be paid back with a mix of public and private money, officials said the facility would sit on 8 to 9 acres of land donated by the owners of the U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site in the project totaling between $89 million and $94 million.
Freier said the existing AT&T Field in downtown Chattanooga was built in 2000 for just minor league baseball and it's not well designed for that. The Lookouts official said AT&T Field is obsolete in terms of meeting current-day needs.
"The location on the hill is hard to get to and into to have other events," he said, adding that he leases a similar facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where another minor league team his group owns hosts about 700 events a year including weddings and Rotary Club meetings.
Also, much of the seating at AT&T Field is on the first-base side, which faces the afternoon sun, Freier said. As the season goes into summer, ticket sales drop, he said.
"That's a huge mistake," Freier said. "It should have been done differently."
In addition, a new stadium will offer more and different seating options for groups than at AT&T Field, he said, and an improved kitchen and concessions will better serve visitors.
Of even more concern are the guidelines by Major League Baseball for minor league stadiums. If not met, Chattanooga faces losing the franchise, he said.
"We need to get this done," Freier said. "Staying in the existing stadium is not an option."
He compared the situation to the operator of a Hilton hotel who'll lose the brand if the lodging doesn't meet the company's standards.
"For us, whatever we had to do, we needed to do," Freier said, citing plans to pay a lease to Chattanooga and Hamilton County of $1 million a year or more for 30 years for rental of the new stadium. "We're at the edge of our comfort zone, but there's a reason for it."
He said Major League Baseball has put a time frame over the next three years by which facilities need to be compliant or face losing the franchise.
Freier said that the next deadline is April 1, 2023, and he's hopeful that by this December he can show Major League Baseball that there's a plan moving in the necessary direction.
"With this plan, we're not compliant in 2023 or 2024, but if the stadium opens in 2025, it will be in compliance," he said.
If the city and county manage to move the project ahead in the next few months, that will satisfy Major League Baseball, Freier said.
"We'll have a fully baked finance plan," he said.
But to open in 2025, he said work would likely have to start by next March or April.
"After it's approved by the City Council and County Commission, there's still a monthslong design process," Freier said. "Architectural and engineering site evaluations need to be done. That costs money, and you can't start doing that until all the sides are in."
He said he's hopeful that one or two of the old foundry buildings can be incorporated into the stadium's design. If not, he'd like to see them saved in some other way.
"There are some amazing old buildings," Freier said. "It's pretty incredible stuff."
Brent Goldberg, the city's chief financial officer, said in an interview that the stadium will be owned by a new city-county sports authority. He termed the Lookouts lease "the most expensive in the U.S." for a minor league team.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said at the foundry site Thursday that the Lookouts lease is three times what the NFL's Tennessee Titans pay in Nashville.
The proposed stadium "keeps the Lookouts in Chattanooga and increases quality of life" in the city's South Broad District, he said.