It seems the stadium plan aimed at siphoning away our tax dollars won't go away. Never mind that we still have a ridiculously poor school system — especially in the ZIP codes of Hamilton County nearest the downtown areas where a proposed new Lookouts baseball stadium would be built.
If the Lookouts' owners and local developers pressuring our mayors and other leaders get their way, we'll see an estimated $87 million in our tax dollars spent to build a new Lookouts sports palace on the now-vacant Wheland and U.S. Pipe foundry sites. Part of the Lookouts' and developers' rah-rah stadium talk is that if we build it, they will come. "They" being other developers, enticed to invest an estimated $1 billion to replace remaining rusty Southside industrial blight.
Our leaders seem to be all in. Mayor Tim Kelly months ago asked the state to chunk in $20.8 million because the stadium would be "an economic driver" for the city. But wait. How long have the Lookouts been here? So far, the grant is a no-go, but the legislature has agreed to allow the stadium tax breaks. That's our money, too.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who is retiring come Sept. 1 when a new mayor is sworn in, also is rushing the plan, telling the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Tuesday: "It's about the return on the investment we make."
He pointed to local government investments made to help support Volkswagen, the Tennessee Aquarium and other business and community parks. "These projects more than pay for themselves over time and help make our community better."
No, sir! A seasonal minor-league baseball team and stadium that employs a handful of players and some seasonal, part-time concessions and grounds workers isn't Volkswagen (or the aquarium). Will the Lookouts ever have 4,000 full-time employees and support another 12,127 indirect and induced jobs thanks to nearby parts and supply businesses?
Another stadium talking point is that moving the Lookouts would free up Hawk Hill downtown (where, by the way, the Lookouts have lived for more than 20 years without bringing us all those jobs or bangs for bucks) for other development. All of this, according to the proponents' hype, would boost sales and property taxes, which they argue help keep property tax rates low.
Adding pressure, Coppinger told the TFP, some of the investors interested in redeveloping the Wheland site said they won't do the project without the new Lookouts stadium there as an anchor.
Hey, leaders: If you believe all this, we've got some some magic dust to sell you. Herschel Walker says it turns to gold in the rain.
Don't we have enough to spend our tax dollars on already without building a new house for the Lookouts?
We mentioned already our poor schools. And we can't forget our recent spate of gun violence — three mass shootings in eight months, including at least one where the nearby video surveillance equipment was on the brink. And what about the disrepair of our city streets that rattle teeth at 30 mph?
Let's see: $87 million is almost a tenth of the $891 million needed to fund our county's deferred school facilities plan. And it's almost a fifth — 19.07% — of our school system's $456 million new budget, approved by the school board last month.
That $87 million is a little more than the proposed new operating budget for the Chattanooga Police Department — $85.4 million. And it's more than twice as much as the $10 million a year for four years the city is allocating for street repaving.
But, forget all that. The powers that be in Hamilton County and Chattanooga — including our county and city mayors, who we've thought better of, are pushing this plan full steam ahead. And no one has even see a full plan yet. Nor have the Lookouts owners and investors ponied up anything resembling pledges for spending some of their own money.
Coppinger this week even suggested he may propose using federal pandemic stimulus funding — or tap into the county's reserves — to help pay for the stadium.
Please! COVID-19 kept many of our children from learning as they should, but rather than use that money to build a new state-of-the-art downtown school, we'll help out wealthy baseball owners who missed a season or two?
We get it that development signals growth, just as broken windows beckon more blight and crime.
But if your house and your neighborhood are among those with broken windows, do you think for one minute the city, county and state would drop tax and federal pandemic dollars on you like manna from the skies so you could build new mac-mansions and park fancy cars in your driveways?
If that were so, most of Chattanooga would be rebuilt — complete with new schools — and soon be garnering many times the stadium-projection of $1 billion in potential new residential and commercial development.
How about it, mayors? Instead of a new home for the Lookouts, how about some new and improved homes in Chattanooga and Hamilton County?