Two members of the Hamilton County Commission said Wednesday they would like to see 2015 emails referenced by Jason Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital, that pertain to Republican Weston Wamp's dealings with the Chattanooga Lookouts, documents Freier has mentioned but not released.
The Lookouts are one of three minor league baseball teams owned by Hardball Capital along with the Fort Wayne (Indiana) TinCaps and the Columbia (South Carolina) Fireflies.
Echoing a statement made last week by Matt Adams — the Democrat running in the Aug. 4 general election against Wamp for county mayor — Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said the records should be made public for the sake of transparency.
Sharpe's comments came during a discussion about plans to build a stadium for the Lookouts on the U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site during an agenda review meeting Wednesday.
Wamp is a skeptic of the plans. Critics have suggested Wamp's concerns stem from previous discussions of employment with the team that never materialized — something Wamp denies.
"I want to see the emails," Sharpe told commissioners. "I want to see how we got to where we are today and why there's such resistance to this project from a handful of folks because I don't understand it. This is an effort in my mind to see all sides of the conversation so we can make the most informed decision here."
Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, said she would also like to see the correspondence. She finished a close second to Wamp in the Republican primary for county mayor and unsuccessfully challenged the results of that election.
Members named to the board of directors of a newly created sports authority would serve a mixture of two- to six-year terms and would consist of seven members. Appointees to be considered include:
— Randy Smith, previous sports director at TV3 News.
— Matt Patterson with the Brickyard accelerator.
— John Shearburn, managing director of Warburg Pincus.
— Local developer Mitch Patel.
— Rudolph Foster, a property owner in the South Broad Street area.
— Edna Varner, a senior adviser at the Public Education Foundation.
— Ann Weeks, South Broad Redevelopment Group’s president-emeritus.
Wamp has said his criticisms of the stadium project are not personal and are related to the merits and timing of the proposal. While working for the Lamp Post Group in 2014, he said, a former investor in the Lookouts, John Woods, approached him about accessing funding for the team. Along with Lamp Post's investment, Wamp said, Wood proposed that he work part-time with the Lookouts, an offer Wamp said he decided against.
Wamp was also previously a minority owner in the Lookouts and later sold his interest in 2018.
"These emails were between private citizens when I was working on behalf of my employer on a business investment eight years ago," Wamp said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday. "What would be much more interesting would be to see all the emails of elected officials who are hellbent on rushing through one of the largest public projects in our county's history against the will of taxpayers and just before an election."
Freier told the Times Free Press in a statement earlier this month that Wamp "aggressively pursued an employment arrangement with the Chattanooga Lookouts" from August 2014 until early 2015. Although Wamp was never employed by the baseball team, Freier said Wamp did previously voice support for building a new Lookouts stadium on the former foundry site when he was seeking a job.
"The primary initiative he wanted to help spearhead was the development of a new Lookouts ballpark on the foundry site," Freier said earlier this month. "Mr. Wamp touted the significant economic impact he believed such a project would have on the community and even went so far as to call the new stadium and the availability of Hawk Hill (where the Lookouts now play at AT&T Field) for other development a two-for-one for public officials."
Freier told the Times Free Press earlier this month that the Lookouts have documents to prove Wamp's previous support for the new stadium but declined to release them, saying the team is focused on the current stadium effort.
Freier also referenced the correspondence privately to public officials, mentioning "several" messages in a June 22 email to Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and his advisers, obtained by the Times Free Press.
"I don't want to ever have to disclose those emails — I want this project to be approved on its merits and without stirring up further controversy," Freier wrote on June 22. "And hopefully our relationship with Weston can be better moving forward. But if Weston is going to play dirty and be backhanded behind the scenes, it may make sense both to disclose his involvement in trying to stop this and to share his earlier emails to demonstrate how completely hypocritical he is."
Freier told the Times Free Press on July 14 that the email to Kelly was intended to be private and reiterated that he wants the project to be approved on its merits.
Hamilton County commissioners will vote next week on plans to construct the new multiuse stadium on a long-blighted property in the city's South Broad District. The panel members discussed the project during a review of the commission agenda Wednesday and will cast a formal vote at their regular meeting at 9:30 a.m. next Wednesday. The panel meets in the commission chambers on the fourth floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse, 625 Georgia Ave.
Commissioners will decide whether to authorize an economic impact plan for a 470-acre special tax district, which would pay for roughly 58% of the cost of the $79.4 million stadium through a mechanism called tax increment financing. That mechanism is designed to capture tax revenue generated by the stadium development and redirect it to repay money borrowed to build the stadium.
The commission will also consider creating a sports authority, which would issue the debt needed to pay for the project and would ultimately own the stadium. The authority's board of directors would serve a mixture of two- to six-year terms and would consist of seven members.
Aside from the commission, the project also still needs OKs from the city's Industrial Development Board on Aug. 1 and Chattanooga City Council on Aug. 9.
Assuming the tax district attracts at least $350 million worth of development, new tax proceeds generated in the zone would cover a little more than half of the cost of the project, and about 22% would be funded through a $1 million annual lease with the Chattanooga Lookouts.
The rest would come from state and local sales tax revenue generated in the stadium, parking revenues and about $1.4 million apiece from the city and the county, which would be paid over a period of time. The stadium would occupy roughly 10 acres of a larger 140-acre parcel.
Chattanooga Chief Financial Officer Brent Goldberg said the revenue generated through the special tax district would go towards a set of priorities, which includes debt service for the stadium. It would also pay back any debt payments made by the city or county to fund the project and support development of the Alton Park Connector, a multiuse path along a former rail line.
Private developers in the district could be able to request reimbursements from the Industrial Development Board for the construction of new infrastructure in the tax district, Goldberg said, but that would have to come after the stadium and those other priorities are fully funded.
Smedley reiterated that the project is about more than just the stadium, which officials have said would be an anchor designed to spur further development in that part of town.
She pointed to the trip elected officials took to Columbia, South Carolina, in March, where they saw the growth catalyzed by a multiuse stadium in the city's Bull Street District.
"The stadium was just, to me, that was almost insignificant to what I saw there and the development that was still occurring," Smedley said. "There was a business development center, a medical learning facility. We saw retail, we saw restaurants."