The Finley Stadium board of directors voted on Tuesday to allow the facility to reopen to the public. Fans will be allowed in the stands and events will be able to be held throughout the venue.
All but several events that were previously scheduled for 2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been cancelled. The last time that the stadium was used, other than the First Horizon Pavilion for the Chattanooga Market, was in November 2019, said Executive Director Chris Thomas.
In his financial report to the board, he said there is no revenue to report since there have not been any events.
Over the last six months it has averaged between $35,000 and $40,000 each month just to keep the facility active and maintained so it will be ready for the next event, when and if it comes. The balance sheet as of Aug. 15 shows operating cash at $56,000 and accounts payable of $55,000. “The stadium has pretty much depleted cash on hand,” said Mr. Thomas and will have to use cash invested from savings. He said, “It’s an ugly situation.”
Special guests were invited to the board meeting to hear how other segments of the city are handling the difficulties caused by the pandemic. Barry White, CEO of Chattanooga Tourism Co. which has a goal of inspiring people to visit Chattanooga, said that travel and tourism has been hit more than any other industry. Restaurants, lodging retail and entertainment iare where travelers spend money. One third of the people in those businesses lost their jobs, he said. There are two type of travelers that the city tries to attract - leisure travel where people spend the weekend, and group travel which consists of meetings, conventions and special events. In March most of those were either cancelled or rescheduled and now a second wave of cancellations is taking place, he said. There have been 134 events cancelled, which means 146,000 people not coming to Chattanooga, and they average staying two and a half nights each. It is a big hit, he said. Leisure is where there is potential now. Activity is limited but is picking up. It is all about health and safety now, he said. Hospitality has been compliant and they have seen no pushback from visitors with the mask mandate.
Tim Morgan, chief sports officer with Chattanooga Tourism Co., told the board that 63 events have been cancelled. The last one held was a youth softball event this spring and with 93 teams and 3,000 participants there was only one complaint, he said, noting that they had the choice to come or not.
To get a perspective from the city of Chattanooga and from Hamilton County, representatives joined the meeting to help make the decision of opening the stadium or not. Kerry Hayes, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Andy Berke, said that the city views the spread of about 100 cases a day as precarious. The city has advised against having fans in the stadium, but he said it is an incredibly difficult decision for the board to make.
Hamilton County Chief of Staff Mike Compton said the county’s approach is that now there are 26 county residents hospitalized versus 70 in July so they see the virus as trending downward when it comes to hospitalizations. Spikes in COVID-19 are believed to be caused by gatherings and parties. And masks help. He said County Mayor Jim Coppinger believes the virus will not go away in the next six months and that "we have to find a way to live with it. If the stadium board decides to reopen, we support it," he said.
Responding to a question from Board Member Tim Kelly, he said that the legal liability, if there is an outbreak tied to the stadium, should be covered by the policy passed by the state legislature. People are not being forced to go to an event, they would choose to be there.
Updates from the stadium’s partners, UTC, Chattanooga Football Club and the Chattanooga Market were also considered. Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics at UTC Mark Wharton said that their revenue will be extremely reduced because of cancellation of Southern Conference football, volleyball and soccer. And Richard Brown, executive vice chancellor for finance at UTC, brought more bad news. The school will not pay the $12,000 monthly fee, when they are not playing football at the stadium, he said. He offered to give the stadium two months rent.
A representative of the Chattanooga Football Club said the schedule and season for CFC will look completely different this year. Three matches were held this summer at Finley Stadium but with no fans. It is now regular season but there are currently only two games scheduled for Finley with a possibility of a few more in the fall, he said. With the strict protocols that are being followed, he said, they believe that they could host a much-reduced match by using assigned seating and controlled ingress and egress. If the virus numbers increase, he said, no event would be held.
Melissa Lail with the Chattanooga Market said she is trying to keep expenses down in order to fulfill the obligations to the stadium corporation. Masks are required at the market and cash payments are discouraged, she said. And she believes that people feel safe there.
Opportunities have become available if the stadium decides to reopen, said Mr. Thomas. Just a few events that have previously been booked remain. But Katie Nelson, assistant executive director of the stadium, said she had been contacted about using the stadium for events other than the traditional uses, because it is large enough to allow for social distancing. Multiple high schools have asked to have their full season of football games there or single events that are expected to draw large crowds, such as the McCallie-Baylor game. The Chattanooga Boys Choir and Chattanooga Symphony have made requests for use.
A reactivation policy was put in place for when the property reopens that spells out protocols for how it will operate. Most of the responsibility will fall on the event organizers. They will be required to demonstrate guidelines they plan to follow and how protections will be put in place during an event. The plans will be reviewed by the Finley staff because they have experience and knowledge, but they will not create plans. There will be a 20 percent capacity in the stands and 50 percent capacity in sky boxes, if they end up being used at all. Plans for each event must be submitted by the organizer, to the Hamilton County Health Department for guidance to identify challenges before they occur. The stadium corporation will not be responsible if things change before the event. Organizers must be flexible and informed, said Mr. Thomas.
The stadium and all the groups that have asked to use the facility are looking for a way to exist, said the executive director, and Finley is large enough to accommodate social distancing.