Just two days after one of the most successful events in Finley Stadium history, and with less than two months to the end of what he says is one of the most financially successful fiscal years in the venue's history, Chris Thomas is stepping down as executive director of The Stadium Corp.
Saturday night's Kane Brown homecoming concert drew more than 15,000 paying fans and Thomas said he believes the number to be closer to 17,000 in actual attendance. He also said it was the top-selling show for a single act in area history, and for him, pulling off the event was the final item on his to-do list, so he said the timing is right to move on.
Stadium Corp. board chairman Mike Davis said pulling off the concert was impressive enough, but Thomas and staff also managed to load in more than 140 vendors and thousands of attendees into First Horizon Pavilion on Sunday for the annual Mother's Day celebration while Brown's crew broke down the staging it had taken all week to build.
"Chris has done a tremendous job," Davis said via phone.
"We are in as good a position as we've ever been, if not better."
Davis said he attended the Brown concert on Saturday and the Chattanooga Market on Sunday and was impressed with how smoothly each ran, especially given the size of each.
"I attended the concert and went to the public market and when I got there Sunday, the stage was gone and the market was thriving," he said. "That's a lot to do in a weekend, and it went well.
"Chris is an organized guy and the staff is great," Davis said.
Thomas took the position on an interim basis in the spring of 2017. The position was made permanent in June of that summer. Thomas said there are more than 200 events on the 2022 calendar for Finley Stadium and the adjoining First Horizon Pavilion, which also falls under the purview of Stadium Corp.
During his tenure at the 20,412-seat stadium, Thomas oversaw such events as the return of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's high school football championships in 2021. The nine games played over three days in December of last year drew a paid attendance of 27,052, and went a long way toward Finley's success this year, Thomas told his board back in February.
The stadium is also home to UTC football and soccer and the Chattanooga Football Club men's and women's soccer teams. Thomas responded via email to a series of questions about his decision to step down.
Q: You are leaving the position on June 30 of this year. Why now?
A: It was never my intent to remain at Finley forever. I was asked to help out and fix several administrative and operational areas, and some items took a bit longer than others. The COVID crisis wasn't kind to the mass-gathering industry, and I wanted to navigate us through that challenge, as well. At this point, my checklist is complete.
June 30 is the end of the Stadium Corporation's fiscal year, and it seems like the cleanest point to wrap things up. It will be the strongest [fiscal year] in the history of the stadium, the year after COVID, and the year when the largest concert in Chattanooga history was held at Finley. The perfect ending.
Q: Why was this particular event — the Kane Brown concert — so important to you personally and to the job in general?
A: I had several goals when I walked into Finley, and hosting a major concert at Finley was one of the objectives I hoped to achieve. Candidly, I wasn't certain it would happen — the economics of a major concert are so difficult that it didn't seem likely. I accept the reality that not all goals can be reached.
When Kane Brown's team contacted us about the concert, I began to consume his music and became a fan — he's truly an inspiring artist. Blessed and Free [the tour title, based on his collaboration with H.E.R.] resonated with me personally, and I'm grateful that we were able to host his Chattanooga homecoming. It was a moment of pride for me, for my team at Finley, for Chattanooga, and I feel for Kane himself. Those gifts are very rare and must be appreciated when experienced. They keep you humble and filled with gratitude. They make you feel alive.
Q: What were your goals for the stadium and the job at the time?
A: It started as a bit of a fire drill, with 4 Bridges Arts Festival starting only a few days after I was asked to step in and help take the reins and restructure the stadium operations. We scrambled to learn the basics, with the emphasis on making [the Association for Visual Artists'] experience the best possible — we pulled it off.
Q: What were the immediate challenges?
A: It was largely a complete reboot — a few key staff members transitioned with us, and we focused on introducing structure, new staff and operating procedures to the organization. Boring stuff for the most part, but boring is good in the event industry. Exciting only occurs when things go wrong.
We work very hard to provide a boring relationship to our event organizers and partners — they are in the excitement business, but they require a stable, predictable and boring relationship with us in order to not be distracted from their own work. Nobody wants uncertainty with their event venue; a stable stadium is necessary for a strong UTC Football, CFC, [Chattanooga] Market and the other events we've all grown to love.
Q: How would you define the status of the stadium today?
A: This fiscal year will be the best ever in the history of the stadium; the management team and staff that is currently in place is amazing and second to none. Our event calendar is packed solid from now until Christmas — we will host hundreds of events this year. My team just pulled off the impossible and made history with the Kane Brown concert — I can't say enough positive about the current state of the stadium. It's running exceptionally well, with exceptionally great people.
Q: What are the major challenges going forward?
A: The stadium is a municipal facility, owned by the city and the county, but managed by an independent 501(c)(3) organization. For the most part, it's a solid arrangement. It allows the operations of the stadium and pavilion to proceed without the full burden of local government; the Stadium Corporation is authorized to nimbly support dozens of non-profit, charitable and community organizations on our campus. [The Stadium Corp.] does good work and has made a huge impact on our community.
The downside is that the stadium does not own the buildings, nor does it receive any recurring funding from the local municipalities for their capital upkeep or replacement. Surrounding land is being repurposed for development, taking away from our already limited parking. All of our structures are over 20 years old, which approaches end-of-life/replacement phase in a commercial setting. The gap between hosting economical community events and generating sufficient revenues to replace expensive buildings are impossibly apart, and we are quickly approaching the point of a mandatory replacement/upgrade of some structures. It's a real problem.
I've read that some within our community wish to fund millions for other stadiums in the area, and that's perfectly fine — I love baseball, and the tradition of baseball in Chattanooga. But no support has yet been proposed, offered or even discussed for Chattanooga's only municipal facility — Hamilton County's largest physical asset. The home to UTC Football, to Chattanooga FC men and women's soccer, the Chattanooga Marathon, the Chattanooga Market, 4 Bridges Arts Festival, CHI Memorial Park, Kidney Foundation Taste, High School Jamboree, [BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association] High School Championship, Chambliss Bunny Hop, countless high school events including [Hamilton County Department of Education] graduations, Riverside Street Meet, SipTN Wine Growers Festival, Chattanooga Football Club Academy, Chamber of Commerce Expo, McCallie vs Baylor sports (in many years), Chattanooga Stars Soccer League, US Bands — and who would have ever dreamed, but the best Kane Brown homecoming ever. And the list goes on.
That strikes me as completely wrong. It's disappointing.
Q: What are the positives as you see them going forward?
A: The momentum of the stadium is amazing — we are the sporting and festival grounds for Chattanooga. So many great things happen on our campus, so many people have grown up and shared moments, so many events have touched our lives. The economic impact of activities on our campus are immeasurable — hundreds of thousands of people are impacted every year. Finley Stadium and the First Horizon Pavilion are truly the community hub of Chattanooga.
Q: Finley Stadium is not only the largest venue in Chattanooga, it serves as the home for UTC football and soccer and for the Chattanooga Football Club. What is its role in the city as you see it?
A: The city and the county jointly own the campus; it seems to me, as a citizen, that their joint roles as property owners are to assure the continued viability of their facility through funding and related support.
Historically, they have each stepped up at various points in time to keep the campus viable and relevant. It's probably not as frequent or willing enough. That will need to change if the complex is going to remain viable.
Q: How has the relationship been between the various entities?
A: Several entities are key stakeholders at Finley: UTC, Chattanooga FC, The Chattanooga Market and more recently Chattanooga sports. In addition, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County are the actual owners of the facility. Tens of dozens of other event organizers also consider Finley Stadium and the First Horizon Pavilion a crucial part of their existence.
For the most part, most all entities get along relatively well. But nobody wants to reach into their pockets and write big checks. Kicking the proverbial can down the road is a longstanding Chattanooga tradition, but we all know that can't go on forever. At some point, soon, the stakeholders will need to stand up as united leaders with vision to fund the next generation of capital improvements.
Q: You are also general manager of the Public Markets Inc., which includes The Chattanooga Market at First Horizon Pavilion next to Finley Stadium. Will you remain in that position, and if so, in what capacity and why? What are your goals for the markets?
A: I love the market, it's changed my life. I've been with the market for 15 years, and have no plans to exit my role as chairman and executive director. The market is so vibrant, touches so many lives, and has such a dramatic impact — it's a very satisfying endeavor, and my goal is for it to thrive well beyond my tenure. There is a special magic at the market which makes Chattanooga a better place.
One of my favorite Kane Brown moments involves the market. When first scheduling the event, with their extended load in and out needs, I made it clear that the pavilion needed to be empty on Sunday at 5 a.m. for the market load-in. Sure, they said, a local market — we get it. No problem.
On Sunday, May 8, Mother's Day, they realized that our claims that all of Chattanooga would be attending the market were real. We didn't expect that 10,000 people would show up" — we shocked one of the largest live event production organizations in the world. The perfect ending of a perfect weekend.
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