‘Let’s play ball’: Hamilton County Commission OKs funding plan for $115M Lookouts stadium

Chattanooga-Hamilton County Sports Authority / A rendering shows the proposed stadium in the South Broad District.
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Sports Authority / A rendering shows the proposed stadium in the South Broad District.

Although it will require a series of additional votes over the next few weeks before it's finalized, an agreement to plug a funding gap for a new $115 million stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts has officially received approval from city and Hamilton County leaders.

"I am so proud of our mayor and his staff for renegotiating the deal and doing what they did," Commissioner Joe Graham, R-Lookout Valley, said Wednesday during a County Commission meeting. "I'm a little selfish because (The Howard School) is going to come out the real winner in this, but so are a few other schools in my district. I am so excited about this baseball stadium in our district, so let's get it built and let's play ball."

(READ MORE: Mayor Wamp: New stadium plan would save Hamilton County $25 million)

The commission authorized a plan Wednesday whereby the city would pay for a $26 million loan from the team and landowners, Perimeter Properties, out of its share of the new property tax revenue created in a 470-acre tax district.

The vote was 9-0. Chair Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah, and Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, were absent.

The city would also cover an extra $5 million in debt, which would be in addition to $80 million in bonds issued by a city-county sports authority created for the project.

The city would use property taxes gained in the 470-acre district to pay for that $5 million. It may also use hotel-motel tax dollars gathered from across the city or local option sales tax revenue collected on the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site, a 120-acre tract where the stadium will occupy several acres.

The Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved the deal Tuesday.

School funding

The county would not be on the hook for the increased cost of the project, but it will invest $15 million into schools in that area, $10 million of which would go to The Howard School.

Graham, who represents the area, said in an interview there is an overabundance of school needs in his district.

"At Howard, the sporting facilities and the building have been kind of left behind," he said.

The baseball fields, for example, don't have lights. The Howard School also remains over capacity and would benefit from officials refurbishing the old gym, Graham said.

The old gym is part of the original Howard School building, and although it’s not technically closed, it has issues that significantly limit its use, school district spokesperson Steve Doremus explained in an email. A new gym was built as part of a renovation several years ago.

"There's a lot of different things that we're going to be able to do strategically with that extra money that's going to open up the rest of campus for the amount of students that are there," Graham said.

Graham said he supports the stadium because he believes it will be a catalyst for that part of Chattanooga.

"But as importantly, it's a great benefit to my schools," he said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Council unanimously approves new funding plan for Lookouts stadium)

School board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, wants to see the county use this money to completely replace the HVAC system at The Howard School.

“They’ve had a lot of problems, especially in certain parts of the building, regulating temperatures,” Black said in a phone call. “In extreme heat, it’s very hot. In extreme cold, it’s very cold because the units aren’t working. They need a total replacement of all the equipment associated with the HVAC system in that school.”

One teacher told Black she nearly passed out from the heat. There are parts of the building that are almost uninhabitable in extreme temperatures, Black said, but because of overcrowding at Howard, teachers and students have to make use of all the available space.

The stadium plan reserves $5 million for schools in the vicinity of the 470-acre tax district. Beyond Howard, the schools closest to the proposed stadium are Calvin Donaldson Elementary and Battle Academy, Black said. There aren’t major maintenance needs at those schools, she said.

“There haven’t been specific requests or any concerns voiced to me from staff, students or the community about anything that really needs to be done for those two facilities,” Black said. “The main issues as far as facilities are concerned are at Howard.”

Black said officials do plan to gather input from the community to determine the best use of the funding.

In addition to the HVAC system, Black also said there are several projects that need to be completed around Howard’s baseball field, which includes adding lights and bathrooms.

What comes next?

With Chattanooga and Hamilton County now in agreement on the terms of a new Lookouts stadium financing plan, several additional votes must occur over the next few weeks before crews can officially begin construction.

Between the sports authority, the city and county industrial development boards, the City Council and County Commission, Hardball Capital CEO Jason Freier estimated there will another seven public meetings where officials will iron out the funding for the project. Hardball Capital owns the Lookouts.

"Work can't begin until after those seven meetings," Freier said in an interview. "As long as there are still votes to be had, no one is going to start building something."

Overall, the primary funding sources for the $115 million stadium are sales taxes collected on purchases in the new facility, a $1 million annual lease paid by the team over 30 years and new property tax revenue realized through the rising value of properties in that 470-acre district.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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