Mayor Kincannon began the meeting by expressing support for the project. She touted the development possibilities and the value to the community. She said her team has been looking at the issue for the last year and is “ready to move this project from discussion to a reality.” She praised Randy Boyd as a great partner for the city and county.
She introduced Mayor Jacobs who said he was initially opposed to the stadium but became convinced that the financing plan will not incur a burden on county taxpayers, and will add an amenity that will help us bring more development and business to the county. He noted that our attraction of high paying jobs and companies lags behind similar counties.
Chris Caldwell, Deputy Mayor Stephanie Welch and Mark Mamantov presented the details which have developed through their negotiations. They presented the facility as a multi-sport, multi-use stadium. The stadium will accommodate “rectangular” sports, concerts and other events and will be open to the public when not in use, for walking or other activities. They emphasized the replacement of a blighted area with a community asset and the connection it would make with the Old City and east Knoxville.
They said the objective would be for the stadium to host around 200 events each year, including baseball games. The group used the term “civic furniture,” and reiterated that it offers an amenity that will attract companies and jobs. Ms. Welch said the team is committed to getting community input. Mr. Mamantov emphasized the proposed public/private relationship has been common and was first used in Knoxville 100 years ago for our first baseball team.
Mr. Mamantov said the cities which have had problems after building a stadium generally were too small a market for their stadium and borrowed too much money to finance it. He also pointed out that they often have an owner who is disinterested in the particular city, unlike Randy Boyd. Mr. Mamantov worked on several recent negotiations related to sports arenas in Tennessee.
Most stadiums have been built with similar financial structures to the one being proposed. While some were not, such as Chattanooga’s stadium, the outcome hasn’t been good. Chattanooga, for example, is now going through the same process as Knoxville to build a new stadium. With funding through a sports authority, revenue cannot be generated through property taxes, meaning property taxes cannot be increased to cover any shortfall. He reviewed funding sources which could be used (see chart).
Commissioner Busler asked who was behind GEM Development. Mr. Boyd answered said he is part of the group and that in the naming, there was a nod to the Gem Theatre as a centerpiece of east Knoxville and because the of the diamond on the baseball field. The president of the group is Steve Davis who is from Knoxville, went to UT where he played football, and then became a highly successful businessman in Chicago. He and the others, Mr. Boyd said, want to give back to the community.
Mr. Boyd clarified that he hoped to have 350 events at the park each year, not 200. He said there will be weddings, farmers’ markets and more. He said the facility in Fort Wayne has that many. There will be baseball 70 nights a year. He said the new stadium would be designed better for concerts than the Smokies Stadium.
Councilman Roberto asked whether the stadium would drive a need for a tax increase and was told it would not. They feel the revenue sources described would take care of most or all of the debt service. Also, the city and county would each assume an equal portion of any shortfall. He also asked for examples of community input received to this point. Mr. Boyd said they have met with the Beck Cultural Center, Green Magnet School, Vine Magnet School and with the Knoxville Urban League. He said they have drawn from that the need to represent the history and culture of the area. They intend to develop a community little league team and make other connections to the area.
Steve Davis expressed his love for the city and said it has always been home. He said his initial involvement came as a result of reading the large percentage of African Americans in Knoxville who live below the poverty line. He said he is committed to making an impact on the community. He noted that poverty is worse in east Knoxville than it was 50 years ago, and he thinks this project will help that community. He said his mother was raised in Austin Homes and his grandparents had a business on Vine and he believes in what they are doing.
Councilwoman Parker asked Mr. Mamantov asked if private financing had been considered for the project and was told they have looked at it, but that this stadium would not be built on private funding only. Randy Boyd said if they just wanted to make money, they would stay where they are.
Ms. Parker expressed appreciation for the reference to the community and asked if Mr. Boyd had considered giving the land to a community group that could elevate the community damaged by urban renewal. Mr. Boyd made clear that urban renewal never was exercised on this spot. He said he felt this use would do more to elevate the community than any other use.
She asked for more specifics about the 3,000 jobs that had been mentioned. He said it would be a range, some short term and others longer term. He said that is just in this footprint, but that it will bring other economic development to the surrounding area. He said the 3,000-job estimate was given by an outside consultant. He reiterated that his goal is to have the surrounding development completed at the same time as the stadium.
Council Member Parker questioned how much public use would be allowed and whether it would be affordable. Ms. Welch said she had some of the same questions and those were answered for her on her visit to Fort Wayne in which she saw the range of uses that were happening in the stadium. Families were picnicking, walking, meetings were happening outdoors (due to COVID) and more. She added it is in a similar location to ours in an urban area.
A question was asked regarding parallels between the convention center and the stadium. Mr. Mamantov said the convention center required about three times more financial commitment from the city. Acknowledging that both are community amenities, he said the stadium would be more directed at the local community rather than visitors. He also pointed out that the commitment for adjacent development makes this much more attractive.
The closest to fireworks came when, after expressing her displeasure that the meeting would be ending after two hours, Council Member Parker made clear she still had unanswered questions. She expressed concern with the speed of the meeting and said local news was streaming the event “with the question, ‘Will baseball come to Knoxville?’, but the way this conversation is going, it does not seem the question is ‘if,’ but ‘how much do we have to pay, essentially?’
She asked if a development plan would come to commission or go straight to the sports commission. Deputy Mayor Welch said she would start the answer to some of her questions. She said “I’m so glad you have these questions and I know that want to get good information to your constituents. We did reach out to you to set up a meeting. I was a little bit surprised when you didn’t attend that meeting. Our ability to meet with everyone else on this call is really helpful for people to have the information they can convey when those questions come up.”
Council Member Parker interrupted to say, “I would love to do a live stream with you. Would you do a live stream with me, Stephanie?” Deputy Mayor Welch said she would do so and mentioned being respectful of everyone’s time, at which point Ms. Parker said, “I’m so frustrated, right now, but I’m doing my best to hold it together, but in terms of spending $65 million dollars, you all are getting wiggly after two hours? Are you kidding me?”
Commissioner Larson started to respond, and she replied, “Thank you Commissioner Larson, I do not need your help.” He said people were having to leave the meeting and she shook her head and said, “Sad, sad.” She later reiterated that “this is sad, this is ridiculous,” before saying she apologized “if my energy has not been what was expected, but . . . I thought we were going to see a proposal today. The information we heard today was essentially what we heard at council meeting. So that is my frustration tonight. Thank you all for your time.” Twenty seconds later, as the next question was being asked, she left the meeting.
Other than that extended exchange, the conversation was congenial. Some members were silent throughout the meeting, while others asked questions while remaining neutral. Clearly, both mayors are on board with the concept and are comfortable with the timeline put forward. The next three to four months should tell the story.