Opinion: Lookouts Stadium, South Broad Street project need a community benefits agreement sooner rather than later

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross  / Jessica Velasquez prepares food for a reception for faculty, students, partners and local officials gathered at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the See Rock City Institute of Hospitality and Tourism Management at The Howard School on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / Jessica Velasquez prepares food for a reception for faculty, students, partners and local officials gathered at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the See Rock City Institute of Hospitality and Tourism Management at The Howard School on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Chattanooga Lookouts owner Jason Freier says a community benefits agreement that revolves around development in the South Broad Street area where a new Lookouts stadium is being considered is "extremely close" to being completed. We hope that's true.

Neighborhood residents deserve to know that whatever is being developed will be a boon to their community, will offer affordable housing among all the high priced housing likely to be created, and will offer job training and work to those who live in the area.

However, such a legally binding contractual agreement:

› Cannot by law involve the city and Hamilton County governments.

› Cannot involve the sports authority that would own the stadium except in a separate memorandum of understanding that would not have the same commitments as a community benefits agreement.

› Cannot force land owners and private developers to be involved.

We suspect all of that has made for tense negotiations, especially if the parties started well apart on what community organizations wanted and what the Lookouts, property owners and developers were willing to offer.

For instance:

› Community negotiators may have in mind a percentage of housing to be built that they believe should be affordable, or a proposed rental price maximum they believe would be workable, but a developer may believe what is requested would not allow them to make enough profit on their development to be worthwhile. And would any community benefits agreement signed with master developer Jim Irwin of Atlanta-based New City Properties be binding on Developer X, who decides in 2027 that the South Broad area around the stadium would be just perfect for a specific project?

› Community negotiators may want those hired to build the stadium and any other development to guarantee a certain number, or percentage, of workers from the neighborhood. What happens, though, if the developers are unable to hire enough people from the neighborhood to meet that percentage either because they are not qualified or are just too few in number? Workforce training may be an answer, but that in itself would be meaningless if neighborhood residents are uninterested in such work.

› Community negotiators, it has been said, are interested in maintaining certain environmental standards. Certainly, any soil remediation of the former foundry site where the stadium and other development are slated should be planned for any ground disturbance, but overly broad environmental standards going forward would be difficult to guarantee and maintain among a coalition of private developers, the Lookouts and land owners.

Freier put the difficulty of such negotiations in perspective in an interview with this newspaper's David Floyd.

"We as the Lookouts have control over what happens inside the stadium and with our business," he said. "But we don't have any control over the private development. Jim Irwin has control over the private development, but it's the sports authority that has control over who is hired to build the stadium, for example. ... A lot of this has been parsing out which party is responsible for which aspect of this."

We suspect an easier-to-steer part of the negotiations might be support for The Howard School and other educational institutions in South Chattanooga.

For example, Howard houses Future Ready Institutes of hospitality and tourism management, robotics and welding, and architecture and construction, among others. We can see how each of those might find tie-ins both in the construction of the stadium and any development, and in the businesses developed in the area.

However, Irwin noted that some of the items desired in a suggested community benefits agreement are not in the purview of those involved in negotiations. Transportation through CARTA, for instance, can't be negotiated because CARTA is controlled by the City of Chattanooga. Similarly, improvement of public facilities is tied to the city. And a guarantee that "legacy residents of the neighborhood can remain in their homes" cannot be made if the residents do not home their homes.

Both Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp have spoken in favor of a community benefits agreement, so we believe both governments are amendable to legally assisting where they can.

As with any negotiations, though, there should be — and probably already has been — give and take. If community representatives are clinging to a laundry list of "must haves" that will never be possible, negotiations eventually will break down. If developers, property owners and the Lookouts feel they have all the cards and don't want to give an inch, negotiations eventually will break down.

The city and county governments are likely to vote to go forward (or not) on the stadium in the next several weeks. The way we see it, the longer a community benefits agreement trails a stadium agreement, the less robust it is likely to be. We believe it is incumbent that all parties involved move forward quickly.

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