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Staff photo / This photo was taken April 10, 2000, during the Chattanooga Lookouts' home opener at their new downtown stadium, BellSouth Park. The venue's name was changed to AT&T Field in March 2007,

In the busy sports world that was transpiring before the coronavirus outbreak, Chattanooga Lookouts co-owners Jason Freier and John Woods had met with city leaders to discuss a new ballpark in the South Broad District that would be accompanied by dining and retail opportunities.

That push has been placed on hold, leaving the Lookouts hoping to move forward as Double-A affiliates of the Cincinnati Reds inside the venerable AT&T Field. Privately funded in 2000 by previous ownership at a cost of $10.2 million, AT&T Field would be serving in its 21st season had the COVID-19 pandemic not indefinitely shelved baseball during spring training.

Given the nation's current financial predicament — roughly 40 million people are currently unemployed — that is impacting Chattanooga as well, AT&T Field may now have to last 25 seasons and then some.

"It's not like the stadium is going to fall down tomorrow, and it's not like we haven't been getting close to a quarter million people coming to games," said Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital that owns and operates the Class A Fort Wayne (Indiana) TinCaps and Class A Columbia (South Carolina) Fireflies in addition to co-owning and operating the Class AA Lookouts. "This has been more about planning for the future and taking things to another level. The current situation means that these sorts of things may take longer to resolve themselves than they would have absent a crisis like this.

"As long as Major League Baseball is reasonable, then we're not concerned about the ability of AT&T Field to function for a period of several more years at a minimum."

Freier said after the 2016 season that AT&T Field was not constructed to have a lengthy shelf life, even suggesting an etched-in-pencil timetable of five to seven years. Freier and Woods have spent more than $1 million in enhancements to the 6,340-seat facility located on the former Kirkman High School's "Hawk Hill," including $200,000 in recent months to expand the batting cages and freshen up the home and visiting clubhouses.

Though Freier and Woods aren't committing to specific details right now, one scenario could entail spending at least $3 million more on improving AT&T Field before revisiting prospects of a new park at the 141-acre U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site. That revisiting could occur as late as 2024 or 2025 but also could transpire significantly sooner should there be a stout economic rebound.

If the formulating of a new home for the Lookouts mirrors the blueprints in Fort Wayne and Columbia, then it could be in the $35 million neighborhood and would be funded mostly by taxpayers and partly by Hardball Capital.

"We have always known that AT&T Field has an expiration date and that there are a lot of unfixable problems that were built into the design of it, unfortunately," Freier said. "You've seen things about the potential of a new stadium since we acquired the team five-plus years ago, but it's never been anything we were pushing or rushing on.

"We built the Fort Wayne park in the teeth of a recession, but that was nothing compared to what we're facing now."

The Lookouts were mentioned in a New York Times article last November as being a franchise that could be contracted by Major League Baseball, which has concerns about multiple minor league parks throughout the country. There have been limited updates in the months that have followed, though Freier, Woods and club president Rich Mozingo each have expressed optimism that the Lookouts will be in Chattanooga next season and beyond.

Professional baseball in Chattanooga dates back to 1885, and the Lookouts have been a Southern League member since 1976, winning championships in 1988, 2015 and 2017.

"The thing we can't do is lose baseball in Chattanooga over this," Freier said. "We're hopeful that Major League Baseball can be reasonable and give us time to work this out."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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