The ownership change for Chattanooga’s minor league baseball team, the Lookouts, is more than a financial transaction, leaders said.
It’s about history and community. It’s about economic development.
“Part of our model in some cities has been building new ballparks that have had tremendous economic impacts,” said Jason Freier, chairman and CEO of Hardball Capital and one of two people heading up the new ownership group. ”We can help attract people to the downtown.”
“It’s the fact that you have a vibrant downtown, a great history here with the team. Other companies are moving here, so it’s a great place for business. There’s a growing population base and a growing employee base. All of those things mean that it’s fertile ground for minor league baseball.”
-Jason Freier (who also mentioned the gig as a perk)
Having the Lookouts here is a reason for people who live 30 or 45 minutes away to come to Chattanooga, he said. It’s another unique attraction for the Scenic City.
“They might have a movie theater or restaurants closer to home, but the reason to come here is for things like the aquarium and the Lookouts,” Freier said.
It’s also an attraction for local residents and tourists, officials said.
Freier-who is a Yale and Harvard graduate-has dedicated the past 10 years of his life to minor league baseball, he said.
Freier’s company, a sports and entertainment investment business, already owns teams in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Savannah, Georgia. And the company is working on a new stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.
When asked about the potential economic development impact of minor league teams on cities, Freier pointed to Fort Wayne. He said that before his company brought a stadium there, there was minimal real estate investment in the area.
Six years after his company built the stadium, it’s a different story. He said millions have been invested in the area surrounding the stadium.
Freier and Chattanooga native John Woods are heading the new ownership group, which also includes more than 15 members with local ties, such as venture incubator Lamp Post Group and Marshall Brock, a fourth-generation Chattanoogan and a member of Chattanooga’s Brock Candy family.
Woods said he understands what the Lookouts mean to Chattanooga. He grew up watching the team at Engel Stadium, he said.
“It was unbelievable how many people wanted to be involved [in this],” he said.
Nearly 100 people packed into the Budweiser Lounge at AT&T Field for the announcement.
Many local leaders-such as county commissioners; a representative for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann; Mayors Andy Berke and Jim Coppinger; and officials with River City Co., the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau-were there to mark the occasion.
Officials said the contract prevents them from revealing the total investment on the sale, but CVB President and CEO Bob Doak called it “a huge monetary investment” in the community.
And he said that all the leaders in attendance understand the economic impact the move could have.
Freier said that leaders will announce a number of improvements in coming weeks.
Berke said that Chattanooga’s brand is “quality of life” and that the Lookouts fit right in with that theme.
And Doak said this investment in the Lookouts helps the city compete better.
“We want to have an edge-an advantage over the competition,” he said.
A new stadium?
Commenters on Nooga.com’s Facebook page quickly started speculating about all the possibilities for the stadium. Will it move from Chattanooga to another city?
Late last year, Freier told Nooga.com that he and Woods’ intentions are to keep the team in Chattanooga.
Still, some locals-such as Times Free Press columnist Jay Greeson-have said that Hardball Capital has “a history of building new stadiums with significant help from local governments.”
Greeson also wrote:
Hardball Capital currently owns two minor league teams, and in each instance, Hardball has played hardball in negotiations for city-aided new stadiums. Hardball got a new stadium built in Fort Wayne, Indiana.; Hardball is selling luxury suites for a new stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, that should be ready for the 2016 season, and has filed paperwork to potentially move the Sand Gnats from Savannah to Columbia.
So is it possible that leaders will eventually move the stadium to another part of the city or county with financial support from local governments?
In response to that question, Freier said that there are “no current plans to do anything specific regarding the stadium,” and he reiterated that in about three weeks officials will make announcements about improvements to AT&T Field.
Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for the mayor, said that the owners haven’t made any request for funding from the city and that there are no plans at this time for the city to help with improvements of the stadium.
Freier said his focus is on creating a quality experience for people watching the Lookouts.
“Our model is to invest time and money into the team to create the best fan experience possible,” he said.
Disclaimer: Nooga.com‘s parent company is Lamp Post Group, but editorial decisions for this publication are made independently of the Lamp Post Group.