January 19, 2024 12:00pm

Power Poll sees Lookouts Stadium project heading to home plate

January survey results shows strong support for a Community Benefits Agreement to ensure adjacent communities benefit from the massive redevelopment of the South Broad Street area

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

The steep cost increase of the proposed Lookouts stadium to be built on an ugly brownfield off South Broad Street has not dampened support for the project among Power Poll respondents.

Almost 75% of respondents in this month’s poll indicated that even with the cost hike, they support the project.

Some of that could be attributed to the fact that Hardball Capital, owner of the Minor League Baseball team, and Perimeter Properties, owner of the former Wheland Foundry site where the new stadium will be built, have agreed to take out loans to finance the difference between the original $80 million price tag and the current cost estimates.

Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said this “skin in the game” gesture from the two private parties involved in the project is adequate to address the shortfall.

And almost all survey respondents said they think members of the Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Commission ultimately will approve the project and demonstrate their commitment to the project and community.

The wildcard in the project’s next steps, however, is the prospect for a community benefits agreement (CBA) between Hardball Capital and project developers and CALEB, a coalition of local nonprofits. CALEB has been negotiating for an agreement that would ensure communities adjacent to the stadium and surrounding development that occurs with the TIF (tax increment financing) district won’t be left behind, or left out. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly has been supportive of a community benefits agreement, although by law governments cannot enter into such agreements. What governments can do, though, is apply pressure to both sides to ink a deal.

Just over 75% of Power Poll respondents said a community benefits agreement should be approved for the stadium project, which backers assert will catalyze $1 billion in development.

And just over half of respondents said City Council and County Commission approval should be contingent on the execution of a CBA.

On the project’s cost increase, when asked: “Has this cost increase changed your mind about the project?” 71% said they still support the project while 8% said they still opposed the project. The increase moved 6% from support to opposition and another 15% were unsure.

Stadium skeptics, including Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, have argued there is a better deal to be had for the taxpayer and urged more conversation and scrutiny to get the best terms possible. One of the main criticisms was the lack of investment by the developers/team owner.

That changed with the announcement that both parties would take out loans from a consortium of banks: $25 million by Hardball Capital and $15 million by Perimeter.

When asked, “Do you think these 'skin-in-the-game' commitments are sufficient?” 63% said “yes” and 22% said “no.” Again, 15% said they were “unsure.”

To be sure, the financing is complex.

Bob Marshall, chief financial officer for Southern Champion Tray, wrote that he believed most people want to see the area developed. The tract of land, after all, is the most visible gateway to the city from I-24 and has been an eyesore for 20 years.

“Why not appoint an independent group of stakeholders with investment/finance experience to either confirm the proposed financing structure or recommend improvements?” Marshall wrote.

Survey respondents strongly supported a community benefits agreement.

When asked, "Do you support development and approval of a community benefits agreement between community nonprofit organizations and the owners/developers?" a significant 77% said "yes" while 11% said "no." Another 12% were unsure.

And on the key question of whether the city and county's approvals should "be contingent on the execution of a community benefits agreement?" 52% said "yes" while 30% said "no." Eighteen percent were unsure.

Even still, the project looks like a go — 96% of Power Poll respondents said council and commission members will approve the project.

Contact Chris Vass, public editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, at cvass@timesfreepress.com or cvass@powerpoll.com.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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