Can Chattanooga support more stadiums?

Can Chattanooga support more stadiums?

October 21st, 2018 by Mike Pare in Local Regional News

Jason Freier, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hardball Capital spoke to the editors of the Times Free Press at the newspaper's office on September 25, 2018. Hardball Capital is the owners of the Chattanooga Lookouts and several other minor league teams.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Lookouts' officials have held no talks with the Chattanooga Red Wolves Soccer Club about jointly developing a new facility, an official for the minor league baseball team says.

The new professional soccer team announced last week it plans to build its own stadium to host its matches in two years after officials were apparently unable to reach an agreement to use Finley Stadium and decided instead to play next season at Chattanooga Christian School. The director of the group that runs Finley Stadium said that scheduling complications may have prompted the Red Wolves to pursue their own stadium for matches.

With Finley Stadium and AT&T Field already supporting football, soccer, baseball and other events — and the Lookouts talking about a new multi-purpose facility off South Broad Street — can Chattanooga support still another facility for sporting events?

Currently, five sports facilities — three existing and two proposed — are at play:

  • Finley Stadium: Has hosted the Chattanooga Football Club for 10 seasons and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for 21 seasons.

  • Engel Stadium: UTC has indicated it is looking into the possibility of building a new venue where it could start playing, and Engel Stadium, which UTC purchased in 2008 gives the school an option. UTC has a facilities master plan that includes the possibility of a 12,500-seat stadium that could be expanded to more than 15,000. UTC would look into the possibility of moving its football building to the new site.

  • AT&T Field: The Chattanooga Lookouts started playing here after the 1999 season. But team owner Jason Freier has said the stadium was not designed to last and has its challenges, such as how it's oriented toward the sun and its limited use after the baseball season is over.

  • Proposed South Broad stadium: A study suggested the former Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe properties could be used for a new sports facilities, along with parks, housing and retail. A possible new minor league baseball stadium has been discussed for the site, and John Woods, a partner in the Lookouts, said this summer that the group "absolutely" interested in the site.

  • Proposed Red Wolves stadium: The team has not disclosed where this might be, but owner Bob Martino said it would be a "first-class soccer facility designed to include skyboxes, a fan zone, several dining options, a merchandise store and hospitality areas." He also is is considering developing retail, commercial and housing around the stadium.

Chris Thomas, executive director of the group that operates Finley on Chattanooga's Southside, said he doesn't believe anyone in the city is getting rich off a stadium.

"I wouldn't put my own money into a stadium," said Thomas, who had been in discussions with the Red Wolves over use of Finley.

Thomas said he and Martino were involved in "good and sincere" talks about the team's use of Finley, which it would have had to share with the amateur soccer team the Chattanooga Football Club, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and others.

Thomas said he doesn't know why the Red Wolves decided to go its own way. He cited potential scheduling conflicts as a possible reason.

"We have a lot of long-term partners," Thomas said, saying that may have created a more complex schedule of matches than "[Martino] wanted to fool with."

But he said a potential deal that surrounded discussions with the Red Wolves wasn't as rich as what UTC receives.

"Not by any stretch of the imagination," Thomas said. He said UTC put money into constructing Finley two decades ago.

"It's really apples and oranges both contractually and morally," Thomas said.

Martino and the Red Wolves management declined to comment beyond a news release put out last Thursday in which it said it plans to build a new stadium on an undisclosed site. It said it will play matches next year at Chattanooga Christian School's David Stanton Field, which seats 3,500 people.

It's not known if the Red Wolves will seek public funding or incentives to build its facility.

Freier, the Lookouts' operating partner, said the question regarding supporting stadiums isn't about facilities, but rather teams.

"The market will support a professional baseball team and a soccer team," said Freier, whose club plays at AT&T Field downtown. "I don't think the presence of a professional soccer team has any impact on our attendance or success in the market."

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Freier's company has a team and helped raise a new multipurpose stadium, the minor league baseball club is drawing 400,000 people a year, minor league hockey is attracting about 300,000 annually and there's a successful National Basketball Association developmental squad.

He said Chattanooga's metro area is 50 percent larger than Fort Wayne's.

"We're not concerned that the numbers of teams will impact the Lookouts in any negative way," Freier said.

He added that he has had no talks about the Lookouts and Red Wolves sharing a possible new facility.

"I've never spoken to them, never met them," Freier said, adding that the Fort Wayne facility has hosted soccer matches in the past.

Mike Mallen, a partner in the company that owns the 141-acre Wheland/U.S. Pipe tract off South Broad identified as a potential new Lookouts home, said he, too, has had no discussions with the Red Wolves group about the foundry parcel.

While he supports soccer, he said he doesn't know anything about that business.

"That's so far removed from what we're trying to accomplish right now," Mallen said.

He said such facilities need to be multifaceted and programmed "each day of the year."

Mallen said his group continues to try to attract a so-called "master developer" for the property.

Freier said that to have substantive discussions on a possible new minor league baseball stadium at the site, bringing on such a developer for the tract is critical.

"We'll be glad to have that discussion and see if we fit in once they have a master developer," he said.

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


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