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City, county ponder option of sports authority to build Knoxville baseball stadium

The Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission are expected this month to discuss the idea for creating a new home for the Smokies ball club.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — City and county leaders are set this month to talk about possible creation of a sports authority that would cover financing and construction of an Old City sports stadium and events center.

Entrepreneur and Double A Smokies team owner Randy Boyd has said he's ready to think about moving the club some day from Sevier County back to Knoxville.

He's been assembling acreage in and around the Old City for future development. His family also owns several commercial tracts in the area.

This summer city officials confirmed they were exploring what role they could play in possible funding for a stadium.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said talks about a sports authority are just beginning to happen


"We are excited to continue to have conversations with the Tennessee Smokies baseball team and Knox County leaders about the possibility of bringing baseball to Knoxville. We are still early in our discussions, and forming a Sports Authority is a step that we can take now to leave options open for financing a potential stadium," Kincannon said in a statement released by the city.

Knoxville City Council likely will talk Dec. 15 about the idea. According to documents posted on the city council's website, members will vote to establish a joint sports authority to be known as "The Sports Authority of the County of Knox and the City of Knoxville, Tennessee" but it does not mean the new baseball stadium is a done deal.

"Establishing the Sports Authority does not commit the City or County to building a sports stadium; however, this is an important early step in the process of negotiating a potential relocation of the Tennessee Smokies baseball team to Knoxville's Old City," the resolution reads.

If approved, the resolution states that the council could vote on recommended members to the Sports Authority in January.

Knox County Commission also is expected this month to talk about it.

“Working with the city to create a Sports Authority is the first step in a long process,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said in a statement provided by his office.

“We look forward to advancing conversations with the Tennessee Smokies baseball team as we believe the entire project will bring value to Knox County—from tourism, to business development and sales tax revenue.”

There's no timeline for creating an authority, according to the mayor's office, but "we are moving as quickly as possible."

Boyd, in a statement, said he appreciates the city and county considering a possible sports authority. The project could trigger growth "for decades to come."

"Emerging from a pandemic, the timing couldn’t be more perfect," his statement reads.

Credit: Moxley Carmichael
A view of a proposed stadium concept.

The Smokies once played at Bill Meyer Stadium in East Knoxville off Magnolia Avenue. In the 1990s, local leaders debated building a downtown stadium, but it never materialized.

The team left Bill Meyer, aging and decaying, for a new stadium off Interstate 40's exit 407 that today routinely draws thousands of baseball fans. It also hosts occasional concerts and popular events.

The team is under contract to play in Sevier County until 2025.

Last summer, Boyd told WBIR a public-private project could be "transformative" for the East Knoxville area in particular.

Boyd said he could guarantee $140 million in commercial development - retail, restaurants and housing - immediately in conjunction with a $65 million neighborhood stadium below the James White Parkway. He said he'd like to see something like 200 events a year at the center, including soccer and concerts.

"Being in downtown Knoxville would have a lot of benefits for our fans and for the team," Boyd said in August.

Sports authorities are a common public means of building sports venues.

The Metro Sports Authority in Nashville is being used as a way to build an MLS stadium. The Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority was involved in funding for the new Braves baseball stadium in Cobb County. 

An authority has the power to borrow money by issuing bonds for construction. Investors buy those bonds. Projects often involve public-private partnerships in which revenue generated from the project goes to pay off the debt.

There's one significant downside to such a venture. If the stadiums aren't being used -- because of a pandemic, for example, -- they're not generating revenue, leaving a sports authority exposed to the debt.

Boyd has consistently said he'd need the city and county to help out if a stadium is to be built.

County Finance Director Chris Caldwell is Jacobs' representative on the project.

"Other county officials with expertise in specific fields will be brought in when necessary," according to the Mayor's Office. "Ultimately, all final decisions around the structure of the sports authority will be made by both mayors."

Commissioners and the mayor's staff haven't yet had "detailed conversations" about creating a sports authority. But Boyd has presented his idea for the development to the commission.

While Sevier County leaders have emphasized their appreciation for the team's presence, Knox County officials have talked for many years about the potential for bringing the Smokies back.

"I know many Knoxvillians are eager to bring baseball back to Knoxville, and so am I. I look forward to more public discussions about this in the near future," Kincannon said in her statement.

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