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Early innings: Council, commission meet for first time to review downtown stadium project

A possible timeline has construction starting in the fall and finishing in spring 2023.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — How to pay for it, when to build it, who can use it.

Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission members met Thursday night for an inaugural workshop to hear options and hurdles for building and maintaining a proposed sports and events stadium downtown near the Old City.

Knoxville entrepreneur and businessman Randy Boyd wants to move his Double A baseball team to the neighborhood in 2023 from Sevier County. He's bought land for a stadium and is clearing an old meat packing plant there east of James White Parkway near Willow Avenue to make way for the project.

The estimated stadium cost right now is about $65 million. But there are expected to be additional infrastructure costs that could amount to $10 million to $15 million.

Boyd also is pledging to build some $140 million in private development around the center that would include residential and commercial operations. Apartments or condos would be incorporated as part of the center plan, an idea baseball fans may recall from the Wrigleyville neighborhood that abuts Wrigley Field in Chicago.

"Our goal is all of it built at the same time," Boyd told the elected officials Thursday in the virtual gathering.

But many issues still must be resolved, as city and county staff members told the group. The team currently has a lease at the publicly owned Sevier County stadium through 2025. It would break the lease to move to Knoxville.

Bond counsel Mark Mamantov said a mix of revenue sources would be used to pay for the publicly owned stadium, including sales tax revenue captured from events at the stadium as well as a quarter-mile region around it. Boyd's Tennessee Smokies team also would pay a lease.

Officials are looking at tapping revenues for 30 years for the project; the idea would then be to borrow money through bonds that would have a 20- or 30-year payback life.

The city and county in December approved creation of a sports authority that would oversee creation of the center. The authority would issue the bonds used to cover stadium construction. It's possible the city and county could face helping cover any shortfalls if revenues fell below budget expectations or if the stadium suddenly couldn't be used, he said.

Knoxville Deputy Mayor Stephanie Welch and Chris Caldwell, the county's finance director, are leading, along with Mamantov, the government review of the project.

Caldwell said the stadium would offer multiple uses beyond baseball. It could host concerts and other sports events, he said.

Boyd said he hopes there'll be 350 events a year there. The team would play 70 home baseball games there.

He compared the facility to one Fort Wayne, Ind., has had since the late 2000s. Besides baseball, it hosts other events such as weddings, community meetings, farmers markets and reunions.

The building would be open during the day for the public for exercise or just as common space when not otherwise in use, Caldwell said.

Credit: WBIR
Thursday's stadium project workshop

Welch said a rough timeline -- keeping in mind the current pandemic -- could have financing, construction and development details worked out by this summer. The public also would have a chance to answer questions about the project and offer input.

Construction might be able to commence in the fall and be done by spring 2023 in time for April 2023 baseball.

Commissioners and council members asked numerous questions during the more than two-hour workshop. Caldwell, Welch and Mamantov have previously met one on one with all but one elected official to discuss what's in play.

Councilman Tommy Smith asked about the length of the Smokies' agreement with the Cubs. Boyd said contractually that normally is 10 years and that he's just now re-upping his agreement with the Cubs.

Credit: Mark Mamantov
Sports stadium financing in Tennessee

Commissioner John Schoonmaker wondered about a parking garage that's near the Fort Wayne, Ind., project. Boyd said that garage was not part of the original Fort Wayne project and that he envisioned people taking advantage of the hundreds of parking spots that are located within a quarter- or half-mile of the Old City stadium.

Right now there is no plan for a parking garage in conjunction with the Old City stadium.

At-large Councilwoman Amelia Parker, who didn't meet one-on-one with city and county staff about the project before Thursday, asked numerous questions and said she had many more.

Among her questions: Had private financing of the stadium been explored? Boyd said he couldn't afford to pay for the stadium himself.

She wondered how committed he was to long-term ownership of the team, having acquired it about seven years ago. Boyd said he was in it for the rest of his life and had the resources to cover its expenses.

Parker wondered if he'd ever considered donating land at the site to a Black-owned or Black-led non-profit that could determine how to use it to help address the high poverty rate.

Credit: Mark Mamantov
How stadiums get financing

Boyd said he thinks locating the team in the Old City will create jobs and spur development beyond just what's immediately around it. He'd also mentioned earlier being interested in starting a youth baseball league to help benefit the East Knoxville community.

A self-made millionaire and current president of the University of Tennessee System, Boyd said ultimately it's up to the elected officials to decide if they're willing to go ahead with the project. If they don't, he said he can find another use for the land.

"Right now I believe this is the best way to make a difference," he said.

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