There were two different decisions made on Tuesday night and the Chattanooga City Council needs to seriously study both. In Nashville the Metro Council voted overwhelmingly (31-8) to approve a $275 million Major League Soccer project. The plan is to take the old Fairgrounds site and combine 10 acres of mixed unit development and housing instead of a proposed NASCAR race track.
On the same night, the city council of Mobile refused to allocate $10 million towards a football stadium on the University of South Alabama campus. No worries: By yesterday USA announced an ambitious $72 million stadium campaign to “raise its own money” while the Mobile City Fathers fret over the city’s grossly antiquated facilities.
The reason we need to watch this – and much more – develop is because right now, if I read this right, Chattanooga has two soccer teams and UTC football jockeying for a foothold in Finley Stadium. There are some who claim a new ball park – be it baseball or soccer – will be the catalyst for the 400 acres in South Chattanooga where the Wheland Foundry and U.S. Pipe once thrived.
Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College, told Alabama reporters minor league sports stadiums – of any kind – do not create revenue, while John Voorman, a Vanderbilt professor, explained why. “I call it the ‘zoo effect.’ You have different sized cities at different stages of development. Think of it as an economic pyramid … the bigger cities have zoos and symphonies,” he maintains and then there is the second tier, where both economists feel Chattanooga joins the likes of Huntsville, Knoxville, Montgomery and Mobile. “Larger cities want the same convention traffic, and they have the resources smaller cities do not.
“People are only going to eat so much and drink so much every day,” Baade told AL.com. “If you spend more time and money spectating at a sports event, and making use of entertainment options downtown, it means you have shifted spending from one part of the city to another. All you are doing is reshuffling entertainment discretionary spending.”
In Mobile they are facing tough problems. The Class AA baseball team has announced it is moving to a new venue in 2020 – to a sparkling new stadium in Madison, well within the thriving Huntsville economy. Yes, Mobile hosts the Senior Bowl but Ladd-Peoples Stadium, originally built in 1948, needs millions in deferred maintenance ($5 million just to paint the rusty roof.)
That’s why Mobile’s commitment has to be the Mardi Gras celebration and any monies must be poured into the aging Civic Center, which was last renovated – hello? – 30 years ago. The University of South Alabama politicked hard for taxpayer money but never had a chance. The Mardi Gras week is the economic driver of the city.
So, what’s the best thing for Chattanooga? It is a two-hour drive from two of the top markets in the country - Nashville to the north and Atlanta to the south. Any minor league sports team will never compete with either’s sports team. Knoxville, two hours north, has the University of Tennessee and Birmingham, to the southwest, is the portal to Tuscaloosa and Auburn.
If you haven’t noticed, Huntsville – again only two hours away – has eclipsed Chattanooga. The thriving Alabama hub has an estimated city-limits 190,000 population to Chattanooga’s 175K, and as the second tier cities in the pyramid compete, we are also being threatened by Rutherford County (308,000) and exploding Williamson County near Nashville, its population estimated at 226,000 (at a growth rate of 10+ percent each year) compared to Hamilton County’s estimated 357,000 with a growth of 2.6 percent per year.
Admittedly, I am hazy on the keen details but I see the Lookouts owner leaning on both the city and the county “in a partnership” to build a new ball park on the best piece of property in the Southeast. This new professional soccer team needs to work a deal with Finley and then there is the Chattanooga Football Club that has delightfully earned a grand following. In other words, there are “shifting sands” as you read this.
Remember this: Finley Stadium was built for the exclusive use of UT-Chattanooga. Yeah, I’ve heard UTC has taken advantage of Finley, and, while I would have hoped for a much more amicable partnership, the dream was for attendance to be much higher by now than it has been.
What is plain for me to see is that there is no quick answer. If minor league teams don’t spur an economy, what does? Let’s recognize we are “second tier” and do our best to own it. But when smart people in Nashville approve $275 million, and smart people in Mobile spurn $10 million, we best get some people around this campfire who know what they are doing.