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A Nashville watchdog group has its bristles raised over political donations made last year to seven Hamilton County commissioners and the county mayor by a Chattanooga Lookouts owner and his business partners.
The Beacon Center, a nonpartisan, free-market research group, believes the donations in November indicate groundwork laid for special tax breaks for a new Lookouts stadium as part of the redevelopment push in the Southside.
"It is no mystery that the leadership group of the Lookouts is trying to use taxpayer money to fund their new stadium, and these odd maximum donations make it appear that they are trying to secure that money through the County Commission," Beacon Center spokesman Mark Cunningham said in an email.
"If put to a referendum vote of Chattanoogans, we believe a new taxpayer-funded stadium would fail. The Lookouts ownership group knows that too, so that is probably why they are attempting to go through local governments instead."
But several elected officials said no one from the Lookouts has talked to them about the stadium, and they ranged from wary to adamantly against using public money to benefit a private business.
They cite varied reasons for the donations, from personal friendships to their vote last October to rezone property where a stadium owner and his partners wanted to build a landfill.
Lookouts minority owner John Woods, a Chattanoogan who now is a wealth manager in Atlanta, said he has business interests here and donates to lots of people.
In this case, he said, he and his partners in the landfill — Charles Lind, Charles Hunt and Greg Krum — gave when the commissioners were starting their fundraising for the 2018 election.
That was a few weeks after commissioners' controversial 7-2 vote to rezone the partners' property in Birchwood for a construction and demolition landfill next to one that closed.
Lind is the owner of CWL Construction and Krum owns Tennessee Waste Haulers Inc.
Woods said the donations had nothing to do with the Lookouts stadium.
"We're not trying to leverage a new stadium," he said. "I think it's unfair what some people have said we're trying to do for the Lookouts."
At the same time, he said, tax money invested in the Southside will be repaid in multiples from increased property and sales taxes in the redeveloped area.
A redevelopment plan adopted by Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments calls for a massive makeover with upgraded infrastructure to support extensive new residential, business and commercial development and includes the possibility of a Lookouts stadium.
"We're a long way from a new stadium, but the message has got to be out there: We really need to get that Southside redeveloped," Woods said.
Who got what?
Campaign finance records show seven commissioners and Mayor Jim Coppinger received donations totaling $47,500 from Woods, his partners or their companies.
The donations came in $1,500 chunks and totaled $6,000 each for Coppinger, Randy Fairbanks, Greg Martin, Warren Mackey and Sabrena Smedley, all between Nov. 2 and Nov. 20. Joe Graham got $4,500, while Tim Boyd got those amounts plus an extra $1,000 from Lookouts owner Jason Freier in January. Greg Beck got the $6,000 total but in February.
Chester Bankston and Jim Fields didn't receive any donations from the group. Three commissioners — Fields, Beck and Graham — since have left the commission.
Fairbanks and Smedley both remember the checks coming in not long after the landfill vote on Oct. 18.
Neighbors in the Birchwood area were hotly opposed to the project, gathering 1,500 signatures on a petition. On the day of the vote, they wore green T-shirts proclaiming "Keep Harrison Beautiful" and packed the chairs in the commission room.
Several commissioners said they had toured the site and considered the neighborhood impact as well as the regional need for such a facility.
The site is in Bankston's district and he voted no. Graham voted no as well, saying he wanted to support the commissioner whose district would be affected.
Fairbanks, Fields, Beck, Boyd, Mackey, Martin and Smedley voted yes.
Fairbanks said he was surprised a few weeks later when "all of a sudden I got a call saying, 'Hey, we're going to donate to your campaign.'"
As far as county help for a Lookouts stadium, he said, "Nobody has personally approached me about it and as far as I can remember we've had no talks at the county. The mayor hasn't mentioned it."
He added, "My first inclination would be I'd rather not use public money to build the stadium unless I get into talks and hear more information that this would be a good investment of our money."
Smedley said she remembered Hunt bringing a donation to her office after the landfill vote.
"He said something like, 'I appreciate your service and the time that was put into it.' I just took it as I was getting a contribution because they appreciated the job I was doing as a commissioner," Smedley said.
And any discussion of the Lookouts?
"If they had something like that in mind they certainly haven't shared it with me," she said.
Some other commissioners said the same. Martin said Woods, Lind and Crum have supported him during his entire time in public service. Martin served a term on the Hamilton County Board of Education before joining the commission.
Graham called Hunt a boyhood friend who offered to help his campaign. He said the question of using public money in the Southside redevelopment "is bigger than nine commissioners."
"If you're going to ask for that kind of money, that should be put on the ballot. Let the public vote," he said.
Bankston said he's heard no request for tax support for a stadium, and if that happens, he'll be opposed.
"I don't see us giving them any money to build a stadium; that's private enterprise. I don't think I could support that," he said.
Boyd said he knows Woods, who graduated from East Ridge High School, and has talked about a new stadium with Freier.
"I was impressed with Jason, he's a sharp guy," Boyd said. "I remember saying, what do you think about a new stadium in Chattanooga? He said, 'Well, that's just going to have to develop over time, [we'll have to] see how the community accepts it, how public officials accept it.' He is knowledgeable enough to know these things take time, they take a lot of cooperation, a lot of transparency."
If there's an ask, he said, "I'm going to be looking at the numbers really closely. Any kind of incentive programs and stuff like that, I want any discussions to be very, very transparent."
All the commissioners interviewed and Coppinger said the county wouldn't act on any incentive package except in partnership with the city of Chattanooga.
Only Mackey said outright that he fully supports using public money to jump-start development that will repay the investment.
"I would take money from any legal source," Mackey said. "Critics can say what they want; we're here improve the community and move the ball down the field. Would you rather see thriving businesses or a field full of weeds on that site?"
Coppinger said he's talked to the Lookouts owner and management, and he and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in August 2015 visited a ballpark Freier built in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as the centerpiece of an urban redevelopment project there.
He said conversations so far about moving the stadium are "nothing solid, more of an idealistic approach."
"For me to support any types of tax incentives, what I'm always looking for is the amount of investment that's going to go there, the amount of jobs it's going to create, are those good-paying jobs, and will it enhance the area in terms of economic development. Until you see the overall picture of what's going to happen, it's hard to say how you're going to feel," Coppinger said.
Freier said the Lookouts spoke with the Chattanooga Design Studio a couple of years ago as the South Broad Plan was under development.
Since then, he said, "there's been zero specific discussion."
"Right now what they are trying to do is figure out what the master plan for this site is going to look like. Once those plans fall into place, if we're still part of the plan, we will sit down and talk," Freier said.
"We're totally at the mercy of how this process plays out. We only want to be a part of this if we're wanted, if somebody thinks this makes sense to be a part of their process, too."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.