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Staff Photo / Fans enjoy the game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Rocket City Trash Pandas at AT&T Field in 2021 in Chattanooga. Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders unveiled a proposal last week to build a new stadium for the Lookouts at the former U.S. Pipe site off Chestnut Street.

Standing in the abandoned shell of a building in the city's South Broad District, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger last week detailed a grand vision for revitalizing 120 acres near one of the municipality's major entrances. But before the proposal can move forward, it must first receive OKs from the Hamilton County Commission, Chattanooga City Council and both the city and the county industrial development boards.

"None of this will be finalized until we have received all of those approvals," Jermaine Freeman, Chattanooga's economic development officer, said in an interview Thursday.

The plans involve constructing a new baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts at the blighted U.S. Pipe site off Chestnut Street, which local leaders hope will help catalyze $1 billion worth of development on the surrounding property.

"It's an opportunity for us to take a step into the future in developing a very undesirable piece of land that is the gateway to our city," City Council Chairman Darrin Ledford told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an interview after the announcement Thursday.

The next steps will involve creating a new tax increment financing district, which will pay for an estimated 63% of the project using the incremental growth in property tax revenue generated on the land. Council members and county commissioners will consider the district once it receives approval from the industrial development boards.

The City Council and County Commission will also authorize creating a new sports authority that will issue the $79.5 million worth of bonds needed to finance the project. Freeman said officials hope to complete those steps over the course of the next several weeks.

The city and the county will also both provide $1.5 million for construction of the stadium, representing 4% of the overall cost, but the project won't require that money for a couple of years.

Proponents have estimated that development in that area would generate $40 million for Hamilton County Schools over 30 years, which is based on a conservative projection of $350 million dollars of new investment in that area.

Coppinger will retire at the end of his term, and on Sept. 1, one of two current candidates for mayor will fill that role. Matt Adams, the Democratic nominee for Hamilton County mayor, said he appreciates the extra money the undertaking would produce for education, but he's slightly bothered by the timing.

"Whether my opponent wins or I win, we're going to be inheriting this project," Adams said. "It is a little frustrating that something of this magnitude and this size is going to just kind of be put in the lap of whoever wins in just a few weeks. Unfortunately, that's how governing works more often than not."

Even though Coppinger is leaving at the end of August, Adams said, he's still the mayor over the next several weeks and still has decisions to make.

"We can't put progress on hold because we're five weeks away from an election," he said.

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Candidates, elected leaders sound off on plans for new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium

Adams said he still sees some details to finalize. That includes ensuring there's expanded access to public transportation to the foundry area and finding a new use for the site of the current Lookouts stadium, which Adams hopes will become affordable housing.

"As time progresses and we get those last nuts and bolts worked out, I have no doubt that we will be able to do right by the community with this new development," he said.

Adams' opponent, Republican Weston Wamp, has blasted the proposal in the days leading up the announcement.

After hearing more about the project, he told the Times Free Press in a phone interview Friday that local leaders have recruited a credible master developer in the form of Jim Irwin, but he called the stadium plan half-baked, stating there's no committed development dollars to guarantee success of the tax district and no money provided up front by the Lookouts.

"It's a total taxpayer investment and one that comes at a lot of risk," he said.

Most of the money needed to pay down the $79.5 million loan, 63%, will come from property tax generated on the new private development. Annual lease payments from the Lookouts and parking revenues from the stadium will cover another 26% of the cost. An additional 7% will come from state and local sales taxes generated in the new stadium.

Wamp also reiterated his concerns about timing.

"Probably the most alarming part of this is not the deal itself but the rush that some people seem to be in to do this as fast as possible when this generational investment is the last thing you want to rush," Wamp said.

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, attended the announcement Thursday and said in a telephone interview Friday that local leaders have been talking about revitalizing the Wheland Foundry site for a while.

Coppinger and the current crop of county commissioners, he said, were entrusted by their constituents to serve four years. They still have another two months in office.

"We went to work on day one, and I see no reason why we shouldn't work through the 365th day of this fourth year in our term," Sharpe said. "I don't subscribe to the idea that we should kick back and put our feet up just because it's getting close to another group of folks that are being sworn in."

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, who isn't seeking re-election and placed second in the Republican primary for Hamilton County mayor, said she appreciates the money the project would generate for education. She hopes people are approaching the concept with an open mind.

"I've got a few questions still, but I have faith that I'll get those answers and then I'll be able to make a decision and feel good about the decision either way," she told the Times Free Press by phone.

Smedley was part of a group of public officials who visited Columbia, South Carolina, in March to see a $37 million minor league stadium that had anchored development in the city's Bull Street District.

"I can see how something like that could potentially be the hub for a community and be potentially very positive just in terms of creating property tax revenue, sales tax revenue and attracting tourists here," Smedley said.

Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, is already a vocal skeptic of the project and raised a series of concerns during a board meeting the day before Thursday's announcement. Like Smedley and Coppinger, he is stepping down at the end of the current term.

Boyd continues to have questions about the project and told the Times Free Press by phone Friday that the new stadium could end up diverting events away from Finley Stadium and siphoning commercial activity from other parts of the city.

"The net effect will be very little," he said. "If any, it'll be organic because the population grows not because of the new events there."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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