Hamilton County's outgoing mayor says he may propose using federal stimulus funding or tap into the county's reserves to help pay for a new baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts to help spur more than $1 billion of potential new residential and commercial development at one of the entrances to Chattanooga.
But a conservative Nashville think tank said city and county money would be wasted if spent on the stadium proposed for the Lookouts on the abandoned Wheland Foundry site on the Southside.
"This new stadium plan has been a boondoggle from the start and is nothing more than a handout to well-connected millionaires at the expense of taxpayers," Mark Cunningham, a spokesman for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, said in a statement Tuesday.
"The owners of the Lookouts would rather focus on trying to get a new stadium on the tab of taxpayers than the fact that 60% of the stadium sat empty in 2021," Cunningham said. "The state wisely chose not to finance the new Lookouts stadium and because of that, it seems like Mayor Coppinger is trying to bilk Hamilton County taxpayers for even more money before he leaves office."
Both Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly have voiced support for building a new baseball stadium along the Interstate 24 entrance to downtown Chattanooga, claiming it could anchor and spur needed housing, restaurants, entertainment and other commercial development on the former industrial site off South Broad Street.
"It's about the return on the investment we make," Coppinger said in a telephone interview Tuesday, citing other local government investments made to help support Volkswagen, the Tennessee Aquarium and other business and community parks. "These projects more than pay for themselves over time and help make our community better. I think that will be the case with what we're looking to invest to help in this stadium project."
The Lookouts stadium attendance was hurt last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to information provided by the Lookouts. But prior to the pandemic, the owners of the Lookouts say, a similar stadium they built in Fort Wayne, Indiana, helped boost annual attendance there from about 250,000 to more than 550,000, including about 400,000 for the baseball team and another 150,000 visitors to other stadium events.
Coppinger, who said he has worked to hold down tax rates by encouraging economic growth in Hamilton County, said investors interested in redeveloping the Wheland site said they won't do the project without the new Lookouts stadium. A new stadium would free up Hawk Hill downtown for other development and draw more businesses to the growing Southside, boosting sales and property taxes more than what the city and county are discussing putting in the project, proponents say.
In a letter to Gov. Bill Lee earlier this year, Mayor Kelly asked the state to appropriate $20.8 million to help pay for part of a proposed multiuse stadium for the Lookouts and others on the Wheland site. Kelly said the stadium would be an economic driver for the city.
Despite the city appeal, state lawmakers balked at giving any direct state aid for the stadium. The legislature did agree to allow a taxing district around the stadium to keep a portion of the additional sales tax revenues generated by the project for the stadium, but Coppinger said state lawmakers didn't match what was provided in direct aid to other stadium projects in Tennessee.
"They've done it in Knoxville and Nashville, but now the state is deciding to be really thrifty for Chattanooga and Hamilton County," Coppinger said. "That's very odd."
The Beacon Center has opposed public funding for other stadiums built for the Nashville Sounds, the Knoxville Smokies and the Tennessee Titans, but Cunningham said the proposal for public funding for the Lookouts "is one of the worst because there is already a stadium for the Lookouts that they can't even fill half the seats for most of the time, so this won't give the community anything new."
Kelly said the stadium would be supported by the local community, the city and county and the Lookouts owners, but the details of that plan have yet to be worked out.
Coppinger, whose term as county mayor ends Sept. 1, said he hopes to negotiate an agreement with the city soon for funding the stadium to help ensure the Lookouts stay in Chattanooga and the Southside brownfield site gets redeveloped.
The county mayor said he has kept property tax rates down and there are now sufficient county reserves to tap. He also suggested using money from the American Rescue Plan, approved by Democrats in Congress last year for pandemic relief. He also said special tax financing and sales tax incentives could help pay for bonds to finance the stadium.
Coppinger said such local government expenditures are sometimes needed to get projects started, but he said the new development they create more than pays for the initial cost.
Hamilton County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said Tuesday she would "be very glad to hear (Coppinger's) ideas" for the stadium funding, but she has not yet heard any detailed plan.
"I need more information before making a decision," she said.
One of the candidates to succeed Coppinger, Republican nominee Weston Wamp, said he is skeptical about public funds for private stadiums, and he questioned why Coppinger is trying to arrange a deal in his final two months in office.
"The questionable economics of publicly funded stadiums notwithstanding, I do not understand the rush to make a generational decision abut this site on the cusp of an historic transition in county government," Wamp said in a statement Tuesday. "There is no looming deadline to act, and there are far more questions than answers. At this point, we have not seen an architectural rendering, a complete financial plan or adequate community involvement."
Wamp said at a time of "unprecedented violence and inflation," the city and county should focus on the immediate challenges in Chattanooga and leave the longer-term plans for the Southside to a new County Commission taking office Sept. 1, which will include at least seven new commissioners.
The Democratic Party nominee for Hamilton County mayor, Matt Adams, wants to see more information about the stadium project and whether changes might be made instead at the current stadium to help the baseball team, according to Logan Nielsen, who is Adams' campaign manager.
"He thinks that the proposed development (on the Wheland site with the new stadium) can help Hamilton County by providing more residential and business development, but there are still questions that need to be answered and addressed about these plans," Nielsen said in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Jermaine Freeman, the city's economic development director, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that the city has no plans to use federal American Rescue Plan funds for the stadium or the Lookouts. But he said Kelly continues to talk to the Lookouts and others and is still optimistic about developing a plan for the South Broad District.
Freeman said Kelly saw the stadium that the owners of the Lookouts also built in Columbia, South Carolina, and he said the type and scale of that development is pretty compelling.