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More specifics emerge on new Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark plan

We have some specifics about a long-planned development at a former Chattanooga industrial site after a new Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark plan was unveiled by county and city authorities.

We saw some of the details emerge last March, when team owner Jason Freier and master developer Jim Irwin of New City Properties released a plan for new Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark as part of a 141-acre Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe site in the South Broad District. The foundry site was identified by Freier and investors several years ago, but with 2023 looming–when MiLB teams need to have a plan in place to meet the new MiLB facility guidelines imposed by MLB–there’s now a sense of urgency to get a deal done. The team’s current home, 22-year-old AT&T Field in downtown Chattanooga, isn’t a great candidate for investment to meet the new standards for a variety of reasons.

Now we have further details. The price tag for the 7,500-8,000-capacity ballpark has been trimmed to $79.9 million from $86.5 million, with the first phase of the South Broad District costing $350 million, covering Class A office space, residential buildings and parkland. The city and county estimates $79.5 million in bonds will need to be issued to address debt service, backed by a new TIF district and a million dollars in rent annually by the Lookouts. (Chattanooga is the second MiLB team in a week to pledge a million dollars a year in rent: the Richmond Flying Squirrels made a similar commitment toward a new Richmond ballpark last week.) A new entity, the Chattanooga Sports Authority, will own the ballpark, but the Lookouts also committed to $45 million in future maintenance and other operational costs as well as booking events beyond the MiLB season. Another model for this funding plan: a new downtown Knoxville development and ballpark for the Tennessee Smokies (Double-A; Southern League).

The expectation is that the development will generate some $1 billion in new development. If history is any example, that’s not an unrealistic expectation.

As owner of the Fort Wayne TinCaps (High-A; Midwest League) and the Columbia Fireflies (Single-A; Carolina League), Freier combined the draw of his Minor League Baseball ballparks to leverage investments on public-private partnerships, investing his own money alongside public entities. At Parkview Field, home of the TinCaps, the public-private ballpark generated a billion dollars in additional development, according to team and city officials, and helped upgrade an underdeveloped part of downtown Fort Wayne. At Segra Field, home of the Fireflies, the new ballpark is anchor of $650 million in development at the Bull Street District, formerly home to a state mental-health hospital, according to former mayor Steve Benjamin. In both cases the development covered much more than just a sports facility: it created a totally new environment featuring residential, office space, hotels and restaurants. High-paying jobs are part of the mix, as is the argument that these mixed-use districts keep younger residents living in Chattanooga instead of fleeing for larger cities.

We will see plenty of debate on the issue as various city and county bodies need to approve the project. But at least there’s now a project to debate.

Rendering courtesy South Broad District.

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