Commission joins city, votes to create sports authority in step toward Old City ballpark

In an easy vote Monday, the Knox County Commission approved a resolution that will create a joint city-county sports authority, a significant step toward bringing the Tennessee Smokies Double-A baseball team to Knoxville’s Old City.

The unanimous decision solidifies the board after the city’s approval last week.

A sports authority is a quasi-government body that will likely be run by an appointed board that handles the financing for the stadium and, under state law, funnels the state sales tax generated by the facility – 7% on items such as tickets, concessions and merchandise – to the city and county to pay off debt to construct the stadium.

Local bond attorney Mark Mamantov previously told Knox News the sports authority could generate "probably between $300,000-$400,000 a year depending on how the team does." The sales tax is only generated from the stadium – not the surrounding development – and only from baseball games.

The creation of the sports authority does not cost the city or county any money and does not guarantee a stadium will be built.

Neither body has publicly discussed what a finance plan would look like for the stadium, though those conversations have been held in private – to some extent – between city and county officials. They can begin in earnest after Monday’s vote. It is expected to cost around $52 million to $65 million for a publicly owned stadium.

The ballpark would be the centerpiece of a massive development project that University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd has promised he could build with $142 million of private funding. The mixed-use facility would be 630,000 square feet of restaurants, retail shops and residences around the stadium. Ideally, Boyd has said, the projects would be completed simultaneously, though that wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement.

In a statement to Knox News, Boyd, who owns the Smokies, said while the creation of a sports authority is just the first step, it’s an important one.

“We are on base! I appreciate all those who are showing the vision and commitment to continue to explore this transformational opportunity,” he said.

Eventual approval of the stadium is no sure thing, though. Both mayors have publicly supported the idea of the ballpark, but only to the extent that it will benefit taxpayers.

To this end, some members of the city council had major heartburn about the sports authority vote, heartburn that might not reside next year as both bodies try to work out a proposed financing plan.

Separately, many members of council expressed interest in a community benefits agreement – an agreed upon document that would outline ways to allocate resources to the surrounding area. This effort, along with the city’s push for urban removal funding, could be both a boon for the community but also a possible tripping point down the line.

Possible timeline

  • Boyd said the old Knox Rail Salvage property and the giant red-bricked former meatpacking plant would begin to be razed by the end of the year
  • Early next year – as soon as January – city and county leaders hold meetings about a stadium (including public meetings)
  • More meetings are held before both legislative bodies vote on a financing plan for the stadium sometime in the summer
  • Groundbreaking could happen as early as late summer, early fall

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Tyler Whetstone

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Published December 23, 2020