Stadium Plans Take a Huge Leap Forward

Baseball Stadium Block Party, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, July 2021
Baseball Stadium Block Party, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, July 2021

City Council gathered last night to consider signing off on the Interlocal agreement with both the County Commission, which passed it the night before, and the newly formulated Sports Authority. Lynn Fugate was not present.

Community forum included thirteen speakers, most of whom spoke, not so much against the stadium, as for a delay to get to the point of a community benefits agreement. The Chamber of Commerce and Visit Knoxville each had speakers for the proposal, saying the benefits to the community warrant moving forward.

Those asking for a delay generally wanted more environmental commitments (Sierra Club) or higher wage commitments. It was noted that UTK, where Randy Boyd is president, has recycling at games and pays $15 per hour minimum. One speaker said the project should receive no taxpayer funding.

A wide-ranging discussion was held in which a representative on the Sports Authority who has worked on “at least twelve sports facilities” before said he has never seen a project in which the developer has put as much of his own money into the project. It was explained that the Urban league is engaging contractors and preparing minority contractors to help them understand the bidding process. In response to a question from Councilwoman Singh, they acknowledged that they had not discussed wages.

It was made clear that to pass a property tax to fund the program is not allowed by state law. Further, cost overruns go to the developer. Councilwoman Parker argued that overruns could come back to taxpayers. She said more time was needed to get more answers.

Councilman Smith made the point that it is a tough sell for the city to demand a developer pay a $15 minimum wage while the city itself doesn’t do that, though they have begun a wage study that could result in a similar minimum. He also pointed out that the Public Safety Building currently being constructed by the city doesn’t include that pledge for contractors.

Architect Faris Eid of Design Innovation Architects said that every effort is being made, within the budget, to follow LEED guidelines. He discussed the drainage from the field, which will be filtered, the permeable pavers in the plaza and the absence of paved parking that would be damaging to the environment.

Rider: When would it come back to us? If there is a change order. Cost overrun vs. change order? Are there sustainability elements? Yes, as much as is possible within the budget. LED lighting, no ocean of parking, ground water filtration under park, permeable pavers, etc.

Randy Boyd also answered questions and said he had met with local unions and felt they had a good conversation. He said union contractors would be given equal chance to obtain contracts. He said safety and local workers would be given high priority. When pressed on what he meant by “local workers,” he said it would be “hyperlocal. Our version of local is east Knoxville.”

Several council members voiced the idea that this project has the potential to begin righting some wrongs done by previous city administrations by urban renewal or “removal” as Councilwoman McKenzie called it. It was repeated by several people through the conversation that the community, meaning east Knoxville, wants the stadium.

Councilman Smith said the $240,000 debt service is very affordable and that the city is avoiding some of the mistakes it made with the convention center by, for example setting aside capital improvement money, any expenditures of which would be shared by the county. He argued that the worst-case scenario is that thirty years from now the city owns seven very valuable acres. He said the benefits to the community have already been committed by the Gem Development Group.

Councilwoman McKenzie, in whose district the stadium would reside, pointed out that that “this is one of the largest investments we will likely ever see in east Knoxville in our lifetime. We have to talk about how we can respond to what has been taken from the black community.” She said Boyd has made commitments and “We can’t look back thirty years from now and see that the rich got richer.” She said it is incumbent on everyone involved to ensure that from that vantage we will see “living conditions in east Knoxville have improved and see a black community that is thriving once again . . . it is bigger than us and it is important for east Knoxville.”

A motion by Councilman Thomas to delay the vote by two weeks was defeated. Mr. Boyd made clear that nothing would change in the two weeks, and that while he would be willing to meet with the unions, he did not intend to enter a formal agreement with them.

In the end, the agreement was supported and passed by council. McKenzie, Rider, Roberto, Smith, and Testerman voted to enter the agreement. Thomas and Singh abstained, while Parker provided the lone “no” vote.

Barring a very surprising development, the stadium will begin construction in the new year.