Groundbreaking for the proposed new Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark likely won't happen next month but now looks around late summer as officials deal with the early work on the project.
"I think late summer will be the earliest," Jermaine Freeman, senior adviser for economic opportunity for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said Thursday in an interview after a meeting of the panel overseeing the South Broad District stadium.
In August, a city official had told the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Sports Authority that groundbreaking could take place in April at the 120-acre former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site.
Freeman said Thursday that officials aren't ready to go to the bond market to finance the project for the proposed $79.4 million multiuse stadium.
"The timing of the groundbreaking needs to be aligned with further discussions around the bond issue," he said. "Once you put a shovel to the ground, there's an expectation that we're all ready to go. We've got to get to the point where we're ready to issue bonds before discussing groundbreaking."
Also, Freeman said, officials are doing due diligence on the old foundry property. On Thursday, the Sports Authority approved continuing to work with the city over such issues as geo-technical, environmental and survey work at the site off Broad Street that will enable selection of an exact stadium location. That work is expected to start on the site this month, according to the city.
Jason Freier, managing owner of the Lookouts minor league club, said in a phone interview this week that he sees the start of physical work at the ballpark more likely this fall. Construction on the stadium probably will take 15 months to 18 months, he said.
Officials have said they'd like to open the 2025 baseball season in the new park that's replacing aging AT&T Field near downtown's riverfront.
(READ MORE: Public input sought on future of current Chattanooga Lookouts stadium site after team relocates to Southside)
Freier said the entire foundry site is undergoing design, including working the stadium into some former foundry structures that still remain, with the help of Jim Irwin, president of New City Properties of Atlanta, who was hired as the master developer of the property.
"We're in that process now," Freier said. "There's back and forth. That time will take a few more months. Then we'll start to have a better idea of where the ballpark goes, what will sit around it and how the pieces fit together."
Freeman said that officials continue to discuss a long-term lease agreement with the Lookouts.
"We anticipate that to continue for several more weeks," he said. "This is not a super-fast process. It does require a lot of time."
Helen Burns Sharp, founder of the public interest advocacy group Accountability for Taxpayer Money, told the panel that an annual stormwater fee likely will be assessed against the stadium property. While the Sports Authority will own the stadium, it may not be exempt from the fee, she said.
Sharp said it's possible and appropriate to address the fee in the lease with Lookouts owner Hardball Capital.
"You can include a provision saying that Hardball Capital will pay this fee annually as an operating expense," she said.
City Attorney Phil Noblett said at the meeting that the lease agreement is under negotiation and the fee is something that could be included.
Freeman told the panel that the stormwater fee will be paid.
He also said Thursday that plans still are to issue no more than $80 million in bonds for the stadium project, but officials are continuing to evaluate the economic environment.
Earlier this week, the inflationary picture was raised as Knoxville officials grapple with increasing costs for a minor league ballpark underway there. Knox County Chief Financial Officer Chris Caldwell said in a phone call Tuesday that the guaranteed maximum price for that project is now $114 million, up from $100 million in spring 2022. He believes most of that jump comes from the effects of inflation on the cost of construction materials.
In Chattanooga, most of the new property tax revenue from a 470-acre special district around the stadium, Lookouts' lease payments, sales taxes, parking revenues and $1.4 million each from the city and county will pay for debt service on 30-year bonds to be issued for the project, officials have said.
City and county officials said they initially expect $350 million in new development in the tax district over a 30-year period, but Kelly has said $1 billion or more is anticipated.
A Lookouts official said earlier he expects the new ballpark to hold 5,000 to 6,000 fixed seats, but it would have a larger footprint and potentially accommodate upwards of 9,000 people. AT&T Field seats 6,382.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.