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Staff File Photo / Friends of the Hooch, which manages the Head of the Hooch rowing regatta here each year, is worried about how possible development of parking lots on the riverfront will impact the event.

Prime riverfront property in downtown Chattanooga is at the center of concerns that its possible development could hurt events such as the Head of the Hooch, Riverbend Festival and Ironman competitions.

The large public parking lot at Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley has long served as a staging area for those events and others, which draw throngs of locals and visitors to Chattanooga.

The city's new waterfront plan unveiled this past summer, which envisions the biggest riverfront makeover in nearly two decades, points to potential multi-story buildings raised on the lot in mixed-use, mixed-income development.

Ron Harr, the former Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce chief executive who serves on the Friends of the Hooch board, said the rowing regatta has used the lot to hold many of the boats.

"We've looked exhaustively at other options for getting boats in and out of the water," he said in a telephone interview. "It's not easy to find another way to do it."

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Worries swirl over key downtown Chattanooga riverfront parcel

Harr recalled one year when construction prompted the regatta to avoid the lot and "it almost killed the event." He said rowers were carrying the boats three or four blocks before putting them in the water and racing.

Mickey McCamish, executive director of the Riverbend Festival board, said he also has concerns about the possible development of the lot.

"We've voiced concern," he said by phone, calling the lots very valuable.

McCamish put the economic impact of the events at $30 million.

"That's one element not considered, the taxes collected from these events and how those tax dollars will be made up," he said.

Emily Mack, president and chief executive of the nonprofit downtown redevelopment group River City Co., said there's no proposal to develop the lot, and any such use is at least five years out.

She said by phone that the idea of mixed-use, mixed-income development came from residents who expressed during the planning process a desire for more places to live and socialize in the riverfront district.

"Surface lots could present a potential opportunity," Mack said.

Still, she said, attracting and retaining signature events such as the regatta and Riverbend Festival is a priority and "top of mind for us."

"Our goal is to really find the right balance so our downtown can responsibly grow and not remain stagnant and hold events which define who we are," Mack said.

Harr said regatta officials are open to an alternative if it could work, but he said the group is "very opposed" to a plan to put multi-use buildings covering the lot.

He said there's a need for more affordable housing all over the city, but not on the waterfront lot.

"For me, that's not the place you'd start," Harr said. "Let's do other places which make sense."

He said if the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team eventually moves to the U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site in the South Broad District as has been proposed, the club's current AT&T Field could serve as a site for more housing.

McCamish said officials can't just look at the days the events cover to see the impact of those on Chattanooga. He said the events prompt people to return to city to visit at other times in the year.

At the same time, McCamish said the riverfront study has prompted people to look at potential alternate locations.

"We've been doing that," he said. "We'll stay close to it and on top of things."

The issue regarding the parking lot arose in January when city officials sought more than $725,000 in state funds to defray costs related to the lot.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in a letter to Gov. Bill Lee the money would help pay the Tennessee Department of Transportation for easements on the parking lot and eventually cause the high-profile parcel to be put to "its highest and best use."

Mack said that what's not seen for the lot are luxury condominiums.

"What's envisioned as part of the One Riverfront Plan is mixed-use, mixed-income," she said. "What's articulated in the plan and our goal is that if and when a development happens, years and years down road, our goal is mixed-use, mixed-income for the site."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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