It becomes increasingly obvious that the game is all but over on the proposal to put a new Lookouts stadium on the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland foundry site on South Broad Street using $80 million in public money.
Hardly a day goes by when one politician or another doesn't seek to bend our ear to their way to thinking. And most are on board with the proposal to build this minor league baseball palace with only our money — some in direct funding, some in forgiven taxes and other government incentives and some in federal clean-up dollars.
Not only does the fix appear to be in, our city and county governments have it on a speed train to get done before voters' choices for new county commissioners and one of two county mayoral candidates are finalized.
There can be no doubt that retiring Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger sees as part of his legacy a new ball field on the now 20-year blighted site at Chattanooga's gateway from the west and south. But this plan need not be rushed for this to be true.
In fact, one of those mayoral candidates, Republican Weston Wamp, has told the Times Free Press that he thinks the plan needs much more study and less political pressure. But still — if it happens — the stadium would be a Coppinger legacy. Wamp said he would, with more study, tweak the plan to be less of a hit to local taxpayers.
How would that work? Wamp said he would seek or require Lookouts owners' skin in the game — in essence the same thing our state lawmakers, Republicans Rep. Patsy Hazlewood and Sens. Todd Gardenhire and Bo Watson, said from the get-go would have to happen to earn their support for bringing state money to the ball field.
The question, in that case, would seem to be how far Wamp has to come around. And how far the Lookouts might bend.
Meanwhile, the other mayoral candidate, Democrat Matt Adams, has already dropped his concern about rushing the deal and last week said he now thinks the plan is in the best interest of the community and will be a good project in the long run.
Adams has even gone so far as to imply that Wamp, is making such "a fuss" about the stadium plan and its timing as a campaign strategy, since it appears, anecdotally at least, to be an unpopular move with taxpayers and voters.
"His (Wamp's) opposition seems to be more personal in nature [supposedly bad feelings because the Lookouts didn't hire him] than for the benefit of the county," Adams told TFP Business Editor Dave Flessner in a telephone interview last week. "A major (locally commissioned) study was done four years ago to show the advantages of developing the stadium and a mixed-use development, so to say this has been haphazard is just misguided. This site is going to bring in millions of dollars over the next several years."
But that's not the whole story.
Wamp told the TFP there was brief discussion of him working for the Lookouts at the same time that he worked at the Lamp Post Group, which was invested in the ball club. But that talk fizzled, he said, when he looked at the future of the Lookouts and their interest in a new stadium.
"Vetting Lamp Post's investment into the Lookouts opened my eyes to the voodoo economics of publicly funded stadiums," Wamp told Flessner in an emailed statement Saturday. "At the time of my involvement, the Lookouts owners had discussed private funding for a stadium, a far cry from the 100% publicly financed project that was proposed last week."
Wamp said he, like all of us, would like to see the Wheland site developed, "but not with taxpayers bearing all of the risk as politicians rush it to a vote," he said. "I get that they may want to go back with some revisionist history and try to assign some motive to what I think. But I am not the one making it personal. I am the one who is trying to do my research, asking questions and making sure we act in the public interest."
Wamp was so convinced of those "voodoo economics" that in 2018, he wrote an opinion piece in the Times Free Press questioning public funding for a new Lookouts 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,'" Wamp said.
Proponents of the proposed city and county bond issue to pay for the $80 million stadium say it would not all be publicly financed because the team's $1 million-a-year lease would cover 22% of the debt payback.
Well, all teams pay leases. And do the math. That's 17 years of lease payments while the city and county are paying 30 years on the debt up front. Will the Lookouts even be here in 17 years? In 30 years? Given the machinations of major league baseball teams downsizing their minor-league teams, no one seems willing or able to answer that question.
There are other questions — beyond why aren't we willing to spend this on schools:
> Will the Lookouts, with this new stadium, really be able to manage an all-season venue?
> If we build it, will they come? They, being other developments like restaurants and condos and other things that supposedly flock around the stadium to build out the local governments' tax coffers? National economists who have studied the impact of publicly-funded stadiums suggest they often don't pay off — at least in generating enough new development and tax revenue. In fact, much of the development around stadiums merely steals away from other parts of town.
So many questions, and yes, there are more, so few days until the Aug. 4 county general election. Don't let our current and future elected officials think you don't care.