Whew! County elections are over. Now what? The stadium? Yes and no. The big question is how does Weston Wamp come around to embracing it — or delaying it. Or improving it.
He has maintained throughout his campaign that he was not against the Southside redevelopment of fallow foundry land where the blight of the U.S. Pipe/Wheland site looms large and ugly.
Instead, what he has decried (and what 58% of Hamilton County voters oppose, according to a professional Spry Strategies poll in July) is the use of public money to front that nearly $80 million in development with only $1 million a year in lease payments on the horizon from the owners of Chattanooga Lookouts.
Wamp told us and told voters he'd like to tweak the deal to get some Lookouts' skin in the game because we have more important things demanding our tax dollars. As it stands now, 78% of the new sports temple would be financed with some form of tax revenue. The Lookouts would eventually make $1 million-a-year lease payments, which would mean they would over time put forward about 22% of what would be needed to defray our debt.
Wamp's assertion — and a Lookouts threat to leave town if they didn't get a new house — clearly put some fear in the sitting mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tim Kelly and Jim Coppinger, as well as many of the elected officials on the respective city council and county commission. Those powers that be have relentlessly whipped this project toward a rushed-up finish line, trying to make it a done deal well before Wamp and six new commissioners are sworn in on Sept. 1. (The new commission will have 11 members, but we've not heard any commission campaigners indicate they were against the plan.)
The Hamilton County Industrial Development Board OK'd the plan on July 21. The Chattanooga IDB blessed it Monday. The Hamilton County Commission approved the tax increment financing plan, known as a TIF, and the proposed Sports Authority on the day before Thursday's county general election. The city is to vote on the TIF and sports authority Tuesday.
Coppinger has argued the stadium plan has not been rushed: He has said he's been working on it since 2015 and it was initially taken to the public in 2017 as more than 250 Southside residents participated in a visioning/planning process that included a ballpark as part of the renderings.
"I'm really a little bit miffed at people who said they didn't know anything about this," he told the Times Free Press recently. "Everybody knew something was in the works, but it just wasn't detailed information."
That it wasn't detailed is an outrageous understatement.
It was a pie-in-the-sky project that still wasn't detailed enough by the end of this June for anyone to know until late July that the tax district to finance it was suddenly going to quadruple from 120 acres to 470 acres — an increase no doubt made to help those officials be sure "growth" in tax revenues would pay the bond issue debt they were rushing to take on for us taxpayers.
We have said before that this is not an easy choice. And it is one that, in our view, has nothing to do with the Lookouts staying or going.
Chattanooga's "black eye" at its gateway from the west screams that blight won't grow itself into something wonderful. We've already waited two decades and, as one city official has noted "100% of nothing is still nothing."
Aside from "growth," we have a moral obligation to stop turning a blind eye to the economically challenged residents and businesses in the Southside. Stadium backer (and now a prospective member of the proposed Sports Authority) Episcopal Rev. Ann Gammon Weeks reminds us we must do right by the community there.
We agree. We even agree that the city and county taxpayers should have some part of turning that blight around. But not 78% of the $80 million stadium-as-catalyst cost for which we are about to be on the hook. This county has an $891-million deferred school facilities list. Is anyone talking about a bond issue to finance that?
We don't seem to mind asking school sports boosters to raise money for tracks and bleachers, but we can't ask a wealthy minor league ball team to do more than pay a $1-million-a-year lease for the new digs?
So again — how will Weston Wamp come around to embracing or in his words, "tweaking," the stadium project?
We think the issue got him elected. Will he make good? Will he even get the chance?