The former U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry site, which is in an area proposed for the construction of a multi-use ballfield which was also selected for a federal Opportunity Zone program, is seen on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Multiple census tracts in Hamilton County were selected to participate in a federal Opportunity Zone economic development plan.

This story was updated at 6:46 p.m. with more information.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Wednesday that local leaders will announce details during a news conference Thursday about plans to build a new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts at the abandoned Wheland Foundry site on the Southside.

It's a project officials hope will spur $1 billion worth of investment on the land, which is a prominent entrance to the city. That could include office space, retail and restaurants, Coppinger said.

Coppinger told members of the Hamilton County Commission the project would result in development on 120 acres in that area, of which 9 acres would be dedicated to the ballpark. Stadium cost estimates have been around $70 million for construction, or more than that if adding in interest and other costs.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Lookouts stadium plan blasted as boondoggle)

"It's a big issue, and like all of you up here, I plan to work until the swearing-in on Sept. 1," said Coppinger, who is stepping down at the end of his current term. "I'm not going to let up. I think this is a really important project to get across the finish line. We've been working on this project since 2015."

Coppinger was responding to concerns raised by Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, who criticized the transparency of the process and the effectiveness of contributing public dollars toward the construction of a sports venue. Like Coppinger, he also chose not to seek re-election this year.

"Until I understand what I think is factual information, I am going to have many reservations about casting a vote in favor of such an endeavor," Boyd told his fellow commissioners.

Boyd pointed to a June 2022 report from a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on the economic impact of community-supported athletic stadiums.

(READ MORE: Here's the estimated cost for a new Lookouts stadium in Chattanooga)

"We're talking about stadiums supported by public tax dollars," Boyd said. "In general, the conclusion of these studies from 1970 to 2010 is, cities should not anticipate an increase in employment as a result of stadium constructions. Construction of sports venues typically is found to be outside the range of statistical significance, leading to the conclusion that a city should not expect a positive economic return from stadium buildings."

Boyd said a proposed tax increment financing arrangement would use additional economic activity spurred by the development to pay for the debt service on the baseball stadium.

He questioned, however, how long it would take for the incremental increases in sales and property taxes to pay off 30-year bonds guaranteed by the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County through a newly created sports authority.

"If the revenues generated in the ballpark do not pay the debt service, the sports authority has to come back to the city and the county to make up the difference during those years that the incremental property tax and sales tax don't make up enough money to pay the debt service," he said.

Boyd added that he's perturbed about the optics of the project.

"I think it's a classic case of bad government," Boyd said. "It's really late in the term of this commission to be considering such an impactful project."

some text
Staff Photo / Lookouts fans take a lap around AT&T Field during Lookouts FanFest in 2019 in Chattanooga.

(READ MORE: New Chattanooga Lookouts stadium to spur 'live-work-play' neighborhood, developer says)

The 30-year bonds proposed in the funding plan are twice as long the normal 15-year bonds the county issues, he said.

"That puts me at 100 years old by the time this thing gets paid off," Boyd said. "I've got a lot of concerns that I can't get good answers to."

Republican Weston Wamp, who is competing with Democrat Matt Adams in an Aug. 4 election to replace Coppinger, also has concerns. He wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread Tuesday that stadiums are poor public investments and also called out a "lack of transparency."

He said there are more questions than answers about how officials will fund the stadium construction, the risks posed by a potential recession and how the project would affect the Riverfront district and Finley Stadium.

"What I'm encouraged by is that finally these negotiations are coming out of the back room, and they are making a presentation to the community," Wamp told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Wednesday, "because they have tried to bake this cake without any public input."

Wamp said he hasn't had a formal conversation with anyone from the mayor's office or developers involved in the project, but he speaks regularly to current and former members of the County Commission.

He reiterated that the money could be invested in any number of other projects while still supporting education and public safety. Primarily, however, he wants to know why there's a rush.

"Leadership in county government is going to change in a significant manner," Wamp said. "There's going to be seven new county commissioners come Sept. 1 and a new county mayor."

Wamp said capital investment in education has been inadequate for most of his lifetime, the county is struggling to recruit new industry because of a failing workforce and there's a rising violent crime problem.

"It's unusual to me in the summer of 2022 that this would be such a priority," he said.

Wamp told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that he used to be a minority owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, and although he has since sold his stake, Wamp said he's still friends with almost all the local investors.

Responding to claims that the initiative hasn't been transparent, Coppinger said Wednesday that a website will go live Thursday providing more details about the proposal.

The project was initially taken to the public in 2017, Coppinger said, and more than 250 Southside residents ultimately participated in a design planning process for that area, which included a ballpark as part of the renderings.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor eager to boost new stadium, complete Erlanger transition to nonprofit status)

"I'm really a little bit miffed at people who said they didn't know anything about this," Coppinger said. "Everybody knew something was in the works, but it just wasn't detailed information."

Coppinger said the land is privately owned, and although the owner, Gary Chazen, could have sold it a long time ago, Chazen knew it was the gateway for Hamilton County and Chattanooga and wanted something special to go there.

Public officials plan to work with a master developer named Jim Irwin, who Coppinger said is well-regarded for projects he completed in Atlanta.

"He's, if not the best, he's one of the best not only in the country, but maybe in the world," the mayor said.

Core Development in Nashville has also expressed interest in investing in that area, Coppinger said. At a conservative estimate, Coppinger said, the taxes alone on the project would generate $40 million for Hamilton County Schools over 30 years off just $350 million worth of investment, well short of the $1 billion anticipated.

"I'm really excited about this, if you can't tell, and the reason I am is because you have the right people to finally develop something that has been an eyesore," he said. "This is a good development for the taxpayers. It's a great investment."

The ballpark, he added, won't just be for Chattanooga Lookouts games. Ideally, the community would use it 365 days out of the year. He's also hopeful that the bond issued to finance the stadium will be paid off in less than 30 years.

"The public is going to hear some really good numbers tomorrow and see that the return on the investment is going to be something that could be pretty phenomenal," Coppinger said Wednesday.

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, agreed that that area has been a "tremendous eyesore."

"It's just a terrible welcoming sight as you come into the community, so something needs to happen there desperately," she said.

She added that the project is much more than just a stadium. Smedley was part of a group of Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders who visited Columbia, South Carolina, in March. She said the stadium there was a catalyst for surrounding development, which included townhomes, senior living, affordable housing, retail, a business incubator and a medical learning facility.

"What we saw in Columbia, what I witnessed, was more like a hub for the community, and it seemed like it could have tremendous potential for an area," Smedley said. "I'm very open-minded about this. I look forward to coming tomorrow and learning more."

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