To listen to arguments on both sides of the Chattanooga Lookouts Southside stadium issue, one would think the issue is simply black and white.
Moving ahead with a mostly publicly funded baseball stadium on former foundry sites between Interstate 24 and South Broad Street is either the most incomprehensibly stupid idea ever conceived or is the best idea to rid the city of the eyesore in the gateway to Chattanooga and jump-start development in the blighted area.
We think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but it is what is in the middle that will determine whether the project moves ahead.
Timing is the most critical factor in play.
City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials would like to have a sports authority board that essentially would own the stadium and a tax increment financing (TIF) agreement in place before Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger leaves office on Sept. 1 — less than two months away.
They say the reason to move ahead has nothing to do with Coppinger leaving, but we think it does. If the agreements are in place by Sept. 1, the new mayor and commission may only be able to slow the project but not stop it.
The Republican mayor is likely to be replaced by Republican Weston Wamp, but he and the current mayor don't see eye to eye on the stadium project. Wamp, in a meeting with Times Free Press editors and writers last week, called the idea "a half-baked plan," "not a good deal," "very risky" and "the worst deal for taxpayers."
"It ain't going to happen in two months if I get elected," he said.
Wamp said "the public's not for the stadium" and that he's "aligned with a vast majority of the community" against it.
He's polling the issue, he said, though the questions obtained by this page indicate his is somewhat of a "push" poll, seeking to get the answers he wants.
Nevertheless, we think the public is somewhere in the middle. They'd love to see a new stadium and love to be able to watch the Lookouts where the parking is easy again (as it was at Engel Stadium, but not on Hawk Hill), but they don't want to see their taxes go up to support it.
What the current Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Commission do before Sept. 1 (assuming the paperwork to do so is in place) will make the difference. On the commission, at least, it appears to have bipartisan support and at least one foe (Commissioner Tim Boyd), who has said he is not against a stadium in general but believes too many questions are unanswered to move ahead.
(Despite his rhetoric, Wamp said that's his actual opinion, too: "I'm not opposed to the d—- stadium. I just think it's "a p—- poor investment." His Democratic opponent, Matt Adams, has come out in favor of the stadium development.)
On Sept. 1, a new Hamilton County mayor and as many as seven new commissioners will take office. What they would do with the project if it is not approved before they take office is anybody's guess, but we think it's a possibility they could be more pro-development than the current commission.
On timing, Wamp and Boyd also note that the Knoxville baseball stadium project (which has more private money and state money attached) has been paused due to supply chain and labor issues. If the local stadium goes forward, they suggest, why not take more time to have questions answered, labor and supply issues improved, and perhaps even additional state or private investment secured?
On the other side, supporters can cite other stadiums built during recent down financial times and stress it is important to move ahead because they have secured the services of master developer Jim Irwin, who could move on to other projects if this one doesn't get the go-ahead.
Stadium proponents also cite the timing of a needed end-of-year decision for Major League Baseball (MLB) on whether a stadium would be built. Minor league baseball did contract two years ago, and the continuation of baseball in the city was in doubt for a time. But opponents say MLB would not be so quick to get rid of its second oldest minor league franchise.
While the bottom line for those pushing a stadium is inviting — the city and the county paying $1.5 million in debt service on bonds to secure up to a billion dollars in investment — legitimate questions remain.
Among those are
> The costs of brownfield remediation and who pays
> How much more the city and county could be on the hook if development does not occur
> Why Lookouts owners won't put in money in the project (though the team would pay $1 million per year to lease the stadium)
> Why there are no public meetings on the recently announced project.
With Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, Coppinger (who has been a conservative steward of county funds in 10-plus years on the job) and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce behind it, and its potential for tax growth, we believe the project could bode well for the area. But the public and public officials deserve answers to their valid questions before any sports authority and TIF are approved.
We believe this project will go forward, and sooner rather than later, but it deserves a thorough airing of all details.