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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Wildflowers bloom alone the fence protecting the former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site on June 14, 2022. The brownfield is the site of a proposed redevelopment on the city's southside using a new stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts as a centerpiece and catalyst. Local opinion is divided on the project.

For three-and-a half months, Hamilton County and Chattanooga taxpayers have been getting the hard sell by our mayors and other officials trying to persuade us that spending $80 million in public money up front for a new Lookouts' sports palace is a good idea.

If we don't, the story goes, the Lookouts owners will be forced to take their balls and bats and go somewhere else.

Where would that leave us? Maybe with tax dollars, tax incentives and bond issues to spend on something else. Maybe even something else for the blighted U.S. Pipe/ Wheland foundry site where the stadium might have taken about 10 acres to become a catalyst for development of the full 120-acre brownfield footprint.

There are lots of possible what elses. Schools. Affordable housing. A botanical garden. Another VW-caliber employer.

In fairness, this is not an easy choice.

On the for-it side, there are good arguments being made that Chattanooga's "black eye" at its gateway from the west won't grow itself into something wonderful. As one city official has told us, "100% of nothing is still nothing."

We can sit around for two more decades waiting on strip malls to move in, or we can take the initiative as Chattanooga philanthropist Jack Lupton did with the Tennessee Aquarium. We can plan and build something — and they will come. They being restaurants, shops, condos, people. People and their money.

Another take is that Chattanooga's Southside has always been a forgotten community, and we must stop turning a blind eye to it.

Episcopal Rev. Ann Gammon Weeks and president emeritus of the South Broad Redevelopment Group Inc., says we have a moral obligation to do right by the people who live and work there — not to mention a moral obligation to better the entire city.

On the other hand, there are compelling arguments against a big giveaway for the wealthy owners of a minor-league baseball team that may not even be here in five or 10 years. Nor should we subsidize the wealthy developers who own the old foundry site, currently assessed at $616,040, according to the Hamilton County Assessor of Property's website.

But the Lookouts and developers want to use OPM: other people's money — as in public money.

Stadium proponents contend the owners, locally owned Perimeter Properties, would donate the footprint property for the stadium itself, and they would develop or sell the rest of the foundry site, which would also be part of a TIF (short for Tax Increment Financing) local leaders anticipate passing to jump-start development.

Proponents also argue the Lookouts will be paying $1 million a year for a stadium lease (most teams make lease payments) and will be responsible for upkeep. In city and county cost figures, that lease is counted as $17 million to a newly created Sports Authority, and the Sports Authority would use it to pay toward our debt on the bond issue (think mortgage) that the city and county would take out to build the Lookouts' new home. The Lookouts' lease payments would amount to about 22% of the $80 million stadium cost.

The TIF will mean that if you build an office building or buy a condo on the adjoining foundry property, your property tax money also will go the Sports Authority to make the city and county's debt payment (minus the usual amount that goes to schools). What's left out, of course, is the portion of your property taxes that normally go to public coffers and pay for police or fire or paving needs.

Helen Burns Sharp, founder of Accountability for Taxpayer Money, a public interest advocacy group, offers a better idea. Insist the Lookouts share the upfront cost and pay for it with hotel-motel taxes paid by visitors.

"This is how bond debt repayment is structured in Columbia, S.C., where the Lookouts owner — Hardball Capital — also owns a minor league team," Sharp wrote.

Also, what happens if the stadium doesn't attract enough other new development — $350 million is what's needed — to pay our debt? Answer: The city and county are on the hook. Officials say the Lookouts will be contractually obligated to pay, even if the team is eventually relocated to another city. Contractual and paid are two different things.

Finally there's the question of rushing to action. The Hamilton County Industrial Development Board will consider the plan Thursday. The Chattanooga IDB takes it up on Aug. 1. The Hamilton County Commission will vote Aug. 3 on approving the TIF and the proposed Sports Authority — one day before the election to decide the county's new mayor and county commissioners. The city is to vote on the TIF and sports authority on Aug. 9. Our newly elected officials will take office on Sept. 1.

Is this a little tight? Yes. Especially when at least one of the two mayoral candidates seeking to succeed the retiring County Mayor Jim Coppinger has campaigned on not rushing it. Republican Weston Wamp wants to get the Lookouts owners more invested and wants state lawmakers to reconsider allocating money to the project.

As we noted, this is not an easy decision. City Council member and former chair Chip Henderson came to talk with us last week and made one of the most compelling points we heard.

Years ago, he noted, someone at the wheel of the city fell asleep and let downtown Chattanooga disintegrate. Then someone took the leadership wheel again and began planning downtown redevelopment, with the Tennessee Aquarium as a starting point.

"I don't want to be on the city council when we fall asleep at the wheel," Henderson said.

We don't want the city or the county to fall asleep again either. Not for development and not as the stewards of our tax dollars.

Here's the thing. We have tax dollars and moral obligations to lose either way — today or years from now — especially if we fail to heed the good advice of both Sharp and Weeks.

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