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Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Red Wolves owner Bob Martino opens a door on a skybox at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge last September.

You're going to do what? Yeah, right.

We imagine that was the reaction of many Chattanooga area residents when Utahn Bob Martino in 2018 said he was going to bring a professional soccer team here, build a stadium in the swamplands of East Ridge and create a multimillion development around it.

We were certainly skeptical (though approving of his aspiration), especially considering part of the property under consideration was waterlogged much of the year. And the city had a popular soccer team. Why did we need another one?

Four years later, Martino has created a blueprint for what Chattanooga Lookouts owners who want a new Southside stadium should do. He put a load of his money in first, the team came, the stadium was built and the development has followed. And then state and local governments were happy to assist.

We believe a Southside baseball stadium has the potential to be a huge draw for additional development in the industrial area once occupied by the Wheland and U.S. Pipe plants. If anything, the site is more of a gateway to Chattanooga proper from Interstate 24 than CHI Memorial Stadium and the Chattanooga Red Wolves are from Interstate 75 and the South.

With the growth of the Southside as a gentrified residential neighborhood and with the area a center-point between attractions in downtown Chattanooga and attractions on Lookout Mountain, the area is ripe for growth of restaurants, retail and housing around the proposed stadium.

And we don't completely buy the Beacon Center's argument last week about the city already having a stadium and it usually filling less than half of its seats.

Without an upgraded stadium, professional baseball officials have said, the city is likely to lose its team. Plus, the current Hawk Hill downtown site would quickly draw new development should the team move. And a Times Free Press mid-May news story noted the team drew the highest average number of fans for its first 18 games this year since at least 2005, which is when such records began to be kept.

But where Martino in 2019 announced an investment of $125 million (later increased to $200 million) in East Ridge for a stadium and mixed-use development (375 hotel rooms, 400 apartments/condominiums, 475,000 of commercial space, 1,200 jobs), the Lookouts' owners want state and local money to finance a good chunk of the new stadium and the infrastructure around it.

A February proposal by Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders showed that public money and tax revenues would pay for nearly two-thirds of the project (through a state contribution, state and local tax revenues, incremental property tax revenue, and non-property tax revenue from the city and county), while 35% would come from private money (lease payments by the team and the contributed foundry land). And the state already has kicked in $35 million for an interchange from Interstate 24 into the Southside district.

A Nashville developer, in a February article in this newspaper, was said to be willing to put $150 million in residential and commercial development around the stadium if the state was willing to make a big contribution. And state legislators in April approved a tax-sharing deal that would allow the Lookouts to keep the first 5.5% of the state's 7% sales tax for baseball and non-baseball events at the stadium.

But the club did not get the $20.8 million it was seeking in a direct contribution from the state this year. Owners and local elected officials believed since the state put $13.5 million in the fiscal 2022 budget for a new Knoxville baseball stadium and approved $500 million in bonds in the fiscal 2023 budget for a new Tennessee Titans stadium in Nashville, it would be a slam dunk. But both had substantially more private investment per capita than the Lookouts' owners have been willing to offer.

"This new [Chattanooga Lookouts] stadium plan has been a boondoggle from the start," Mark Cunningham, a spokesman for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, said in a statement last week, "and is nothing more than a handout to well-connected millionaires at the expense of taxpayers."

The statement by the Nashville-based, nonprofit, free-market think tank came in response to recent comments by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who told a Chattanooga Rotary Club audience he hoped the county and city could complete an agreement to aid in the Southside stadium's development before he left office, and maybe use federal American Rescue Plan funds to help do so.

Coppinger said he was less interested in the stadium as he was the potential development around it, and that is consistent with his previous actions as mayor.

Yet, what we believe will make the project take off is for Lookouts' owners and investors to mimic Martino, whose huge underwriting up front brought in state money and contributions from the Hamilton County Commission and East Ridge City Council. That's the right order for projects of this magnitude.

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