This story was updated Tuesday, July 9, 2019, at 7:26 p.m. with more information.
A year after launching the Red Wolves professional soccer team in Chattanooga, Utah developer Bob Martino said Tuesday he is beginning "the dream of a lifetime" by building a new $6 million stadium for his team in East Ridge.
Martino joined with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and more than a dozen state and local government leaders to ceremonially throw the first shovel of dirt for the 5,500-seat facility that will anchor what Martino hopes will grow into a $125 million development on one of the largest undeveloped parcels in East Ridge.
Martino, owner of Star Community Builders in Park City, Utah, and the USL One soccer team in Chattanooga, completed the purchase of just over 100 acres along Interstate 75 and Interstate 24 earlier this month. He plans to convert the vacant, low-lying site into the home of the first professional soccer-only stadium in the region surrounded by 400 apartment and condominium units, 375 hotel rooms, 475,000 square feet of restaurants and other commercial space and a network of walking and nature trails that could connect under I-75 with Camp Jordan.
"This marks one of the most significant days in Red Wolves history," Martino told team members gathered with state, Hamilton County and East Ridge leaders at the Mack Smith Road entrance off of Spring Creek Road where Martino plans his development. "From my first day in Chattanooga, I have been looking for an opportunity to unite my passion for sports and real estate, and today I'm seeing a dream come to life for a community centered around sports. This development will be here for a long time, and generations of families and fans will create lasting memories here."
The East Ridge City Council last month approved rezoning 61 acres on the southwest corner of the I-75 and I-24 intersection to allow for the new stadium, hotel, apartments and commercial development. Although Martino is yet to obtain state approval for the site plan or any city building permits for his development, local leaders heralded the start of what will be the biggest new investment in East Ridge history.
"Today we are turning over dirt and turning over a new leaf in East Ridge," city Mayor Brian Williams said. "For years, this area has remained dormant, and we are thankful to Bob and the team for breathing new life into this property and committing to creating hundreds of jobs for our people in East Ridge."
East Ridge Vice Mayor and state Rep. Esther Helton said the development in her hometown is "a rallying point for the future" of Hamilton County's second biggest city, which lost population in the 1980s and 1990s and has trailed the growth of other nearby suburban towns so far in the 21st century.
Gov. Lee, who came to the stadium site for Tuesday's groundbreaking, thanked Martino for his investment and said the stadium should boost tourism and other economic growth in the entire region.
"I'm really pleased that this is happening in East Ridge and it is just one in a long line of good things that are happening in Chattanooga and in Tennessee," he said.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the state agency which must issue permits to build on the area near the highway, has yet to approve any plans for the site, some of which is low-lying or in a floodplain.
Eric Ward, communications director for TDEC, said the agency has had "preliminary discussions with consultants but no applications have been filed" so far for any of the development.
"There are still no permit applications, so this seems a bit premature," said Sandy Kurtz, an environmental activist for the Sierra Club who attended Tuesday's groundbreaking. "Where is the hydraulic study to show that they will not create more flooding? What about the potential destruction of wetlands in this area, which may violate the Clean Water Act? I have real doubts whether they can save the wetlands and keep the storage capacity in place to protect the neighborhoods that surround this wetlands."
Jeff Sikes of ASA Engineering and Consulting, which is preparing site plans for the development, has acknowledged that the low-lying, wooded site along the highway creates some "difficult challenges." He told the planning commission and the City Council in June that the developers are aware of the concerns of residents in Landsdale Park, an old East Ridge neighborhood that backs up to the property.
Martino, who has built or developed more than $500 million of residential, commercial or industrial properties in Utah, California and Ohio over the past two decades, said the development will be built to both protect the environment with open areas and hiking trails and to spur more jobs and tax revenue for East Ridge.
"We are working through the process right now," he said.
Built out over the next three to five years, the property is expected to generate between $6 and $7 million in tax revenue each year, Martino said.
Although the stadium will be privately funded, some or all of its costs could be repaid from the additional sales tax revenues it helps generate and which can be used to pay for private developments in the East Ridge Border Region Retail Development District created by the Tennessee Legislature in 2011. The incentive allows the city to recapture the growth in sales tax collections within a zone and then plow that money back into repaying investments in the area, including the planned $6 million soccer stadium.
Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson, who was sponsor of the Border Zone legislation in 2011 and helped include East Ridge as one of the eligible areas, said Tuesday the Border Zone helped bring Bass Pro Shops to Exit 1 and could aid in paying for some of Martino's development.
"The intent of the legislation was to encourage development in Tennessee in border areas like this, and we leave it to local governments to best decide how to spend this [sales tax] money," Watson said. "But obviously if you develop this land where there was nothing before you are going to generate new money and more jobs. I think this act has far surpassed our expectations for East Ridge."
Beyond the real estate advantages of Martino's development, Red Wolves players said Tuesday they are eager to play in their own stadium.
"We've made CCS [Chattanooga Christian School] our home for the time being, but it's not truly your home until you've got your name at the entrance and on the scoreboard, and having this new stadium should be huge for our team," said Alex Mangels, the goalkeeper who joined the Red Wolves in January.
When not in use by the Chattanooga Red Wolves, Dalton Red Wolves or Lady Red Wolves, the stadium will act as a venue for non-sports events such as concerts, Martino said.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.