Chattanooga Lookouts stadium site developer sees home run potential on Southside site

Contributed photo / Artist rendering shows the proposed Chattanooga Lookouts stadium planned on the Southside.

When the new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium opens on the former Wheland Foundry site in two years, the master developer for the project hopes to offer far more than a playing field for players and fans.

Jim Irwin, the Atlanta developer who has successfully redeveloped other abandoned industrial properties in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Atlanta and Nashville, said Thursday he hopes to bring a mix of residential, office and retail development along with unique community and public spaces around the new minor league baseball stadium planned on Chattanooga's Southside.

"When you can bring the public and private sectors together and capture the energy and potential of a community with the best architecture and place making, you can really harness lightning in a bottle," Irwin said Thursday in a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club. "Not only will this result in economic development, but more importantly to me, it will result in spectacular places."

Irwin, the founder and president of New City Properties, is working with architects in Chattanooga this week to continue planning for a new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium and other reuse of the 120 acres once used by the Wheland and U.S. Pipe foundries before they shut down more than two decades ago.

The new Lookouts stadium, which is expected to seat from 5,000 to 6,000, will replace the team's current ballpark on Hawk Hill by the 2025 season.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments plan to issue up to $80 million in bonds through their Sports Authority to pay for the new Chattanooga Lookouts baseball stadium on about 10 acres of the Southside property that has been owned by the Chattanooga-based Perimeter Properties since the foundries closed. The stadium bonds are expected to be repaid with lease payments from the Lookouts and from additional tax revenues generated in the 470-acre special tax district created around the planned stadium.


Sleeping giant

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and former Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who pushed the funding plan for the stadium project through the city and county commissions last year, project the stadium should help spur up to $1 billion of new investment over time.

"This has been like a sleeping giant," Irwin said of the former Wheland site along the I-24 western entrance into Chattanooga.

Irwin said plans are still being developed for most of the 120-acre site, but preliminary sketches shown Thursday to the Rotary Club show both multi-family housing development and offices around the stadium, which is being positioned with home plate backing up to Interstate 24 and Moccasin Bend.

Live, work, play

Irwin began his development career while still in his 20s by helping to redevelop an industrial site in Fort Wayne, Indiana, into a minor league baseball stadium surrounded by new housing, parks, offices and storefronts.

In Atlanta, Irwin's company helped redevelop the Ponce City Market along the beltway and bring new offices, condominiums and restaurants into a previously blighted area of town. Within a six-block area, nearly $4 billion has been invested over the past decade along the Beltline in Atlanta with a variety of development and new corporate offices, including major investments by the New York investment firm of Blackrock, the McKenzie consulting firm and the tech offices for Chick-fil-A, Irwin said.

In the Germantown community in Nashville, Irwin's company bought the former Neuhoff slaughterhouse on the Cumberland River four years ago and has already added apartments and offices.

Irwin said building an attractive community where people can live, work and play in the same area is increasingly popular and helps employers recruit and maintain staff.

"We have tried to really reimagine where people work as there has been a shift in company real estate choices from the C-suite to the HR (human resources) department as employers recognize they need to provide a place where people want to come to work and place where people enjoy spending their day," Irwin said.

While many businesses are still struggling to get all of their workers back to the office after the COVID-19 pandemic, Irwin said all of the offices in his Ponce City Market are full.

Local benefits

Irwin said each of the redevelopment projects he has worked on are unique and have required bringing the community on board to help maximize the historic and diverse nature of the properties. Rev. Ann Gammon Weeks, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee who is president emeritus of the South Broad Redevelopment Group and a member of the Sports Authority, said the developers are working with community residents and bringing national expertise to the former Wheland site.

"With such a positive developer like Jim Irwin involving local architects along with world-renowned architects, I think we're going to end up with an excellent product for our community," she said after Irwin's speech.

Irwin said he has been meeting with local residents, officials and Howard High School students and teachers near the stadium site to talk about ways to develop and use the former Wheland site.

The developers are negotiating with the nonprofit community group Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence on what could be Chattanooga's first community benefits agreement between a developer and the local community.

Janice Gooden, co-chair of the economic mobility task for CALEB, said community members began meeting in August 2022 to help ensure that the new development addresses local concerns and needs for housing, employment, transportation, education and the environment. Gooden said CALEB has drafted a proposal and has twice met with developers over a proposed community agreement.

"We're going to have to come together to flesh out the details to come to an agreement," Gooden said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I think we're a lot closer, but we don't have a definite date yet."

Irwin said he is actively working with CALEB and the community to develop a community benefits agreement that will spell out commitments by the developer to meet community needs and concerns.

"This is really a pioneering idea for the community," Irwin said. "I know this has been tried with other projects in the past, but we have committed to getting this across the finish line."

In addition to Irwin's company, the community benefits agreement is expected to involve the Sports Authority and Hardball Capital, which owns the Lookouts.

Irwin said he hopes when the stadium opens in 2025, there will be a number of attractions and developments open or under active development.

"We're actively designing the development now, and we're optimistic that we'll be able to build and finance it," Irwin said in an interview after his speech.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.