My wife and I, and many of our friends, hope the redevelopment of the Wheland Foundry site will become a crown jewel in the so-called renaissance of Chattanooga.
While the potential for significant public investment on the property deserves wide support, the construction of an estimated $60 million baseball stadium there is a highly unimaginative and inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
Consider the case of the Gwinnett Stripers, a minor league affiliate of the nearby Atlanta Braves, who built a beautiful new stadium in 2009 ($20 million over budget) and now have the worst attendance of any Triple-A affiliate. By far.
Politicians also should heed the lessons learned by Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who led efforts to relocate the parent Braves. In 2015, he claimed a stadium would provide a 60 percent return on investment for taxpayers. In 2016, voters booted him from office, and by 2017 it became obvious Cobb County will be lucky to break even on the stadium.
The examples of bad stadium deals are so rampant Temple University economist Michael Leeds says, "If you ever had a consensus in economics, this would be it. There is no impact."
In full disclosure, in the fall of 2014 when John Woods, an East Ridge native, was attempting to purchase the Chattanooga Lookouts, I was approached about helping his Atlanta-based partnership make inroads in Chattanooga. As a result, I became one of the minority owners of the Lookouts through an investment made by Lamp Post Group, where I worked for six years. But when valid reasons prohibited the buyer with local ties from becoming the majority owner and Jason Freier of Hardball Capital, an Atlanta-based investment fund, became the managing partner, I grew to regret my involvement.
My ultimate regret came from the realization Freier had a track record of holding minor league baseball teams hostage.
It happened in Savannah, Ga., three years ago. Today, a stadium there reminiscent of historic Engel Stadium sits dormant. Freier moved the team to Columbia, S.C.
When owners have deep roots in the community like former Lookouts owner Frank Burke, previous Tennessee Smokies owner Bill Haslam, or their current owner, gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, loyalties run deep. But with investors to please, politicians must either build Freier a stadium, increasing the value of his fund's asset, or he will bolt to a city that will. That may be a choice Chattanooga has to make.
Freier, of course, opposed the Beacon Center and state Rep. Gerald McCormick raising questions about the financing of the stadium. But a non-binding referendum to gauge public support for taxpayer funding of a new stadium is the right thing to do.
Chattanooga, ultimately, may have to make a decision about such a public investment.
Despite our city's winning streak, we know our community has shortfalls. Violent crime plagues our inner city, one in four children is food insecure, and educational outcomes are too often determined by race, socioeconomics and absentee fathers.
Given that, it's hard to imagine the best use of our taxpayer dollars is the construction of a stadium (fingers crossed even that it helps one side of town more than it hurts the neighborhood it's leaving).
It's a given investments on the Southside will hurt the riverfront, but shouldn't there be a thorough look at the economic impact of the Wheland redevelopment on the riverfront? There is a limit to entertainment dollars available and, as Freier has said, the multi-purpose development would feature concerts. Wouldn't that be unfairly detrimental to Memorial Auditorium, the Tivoli and private music venues?
And if we make a major taxpayer investment there, how do we square paying the cost of a night out at the ballpark when we're also paying for the stadium? After all, Mayor Bob Corker's visionary investment gave us a new riverfront that costs us nothing to enjoy.
Jack Lupton and his grand vision for a world-class aquarium on the banks of the Tennessee River have brought Chattanooga to this moment. It would be a disservice to his legacy if we allow ourselves to be swindled by a profiteer whose commitment to Chattanooga is so thin he may leave town as soon as he doesn't get what he desires.
Weston Wamp, the host of "The Pitch" on ESPN Radio in Chattanooga, is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.