Baseball and Benefits
Potential community improvements will play a role in determining whether the city and county build a ballpark for the Smokies.
Most of the scrutiny of the proposed baseball stadium near downtown Knoxville has focused on financing. That’s not surprising. After all, the plans call for a $65 million ballpark for the Tennessee Smokies to be built with public dollars.
Smokies owner Randy Boyd says his record of making a difference in Knoxville would help drive the stadium project..
But the ancillary benefits of the stadium to the community will also be a factor in whether the Knox County Commission and the Knoxville City Council sign off on the deal with Smokies owner and University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd.
Some public officials and private citizens are raising questions about how the surrounding community, particularly poverty-laden East Knoxville, will be better off after the first pitch of the first season.
Boyd assembled property for the project over the past several years. He intends to donate the footprint for the stadium and build a $142 million mixed-use development on the property surrounding the ballpark. Demolition of the former Lay Packing Co. site has already begun.
During a joint Commission-Council workshop last Thursday, Boyd said giving back to the community is one of the driving forces behind the proposal to bring minor-league baseball back to Knoxville after a two-decade absence.
“We're all, to the person, primarily motivated by our wanting to give back to our community. There's plenty of other places to invest and probably make a bigger return,” Boyd said. “This is a way to give back to our community in a way that's transformative.”
One way he intends to engage with the community is to throw open the gates when the Smokies aren’t playing a home game. He points to Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., as a model. Boyd said people could walk and exercise on the field, and he aims to host around 350 events a year, including concerts.
“There will be many people that love and enjoy this park and never come to a baseball game,” Boyd said. “There'll be family reunions, there'll be weddings, there'll be farmers markets.”
Boyd said he wants to be active in the East Knoxville community and has reached out to the principals of Vine Middle Magnet School and Austin-East Magnet High School, as well as Renee Kesler, director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He said internships and summer jobs would be possibilities for Austin-East students.
Boyd also said he wants to sponsor youth baseball teams in East Knoxville. “I think it'd be good for them physically and emotionally,” he said. “And so it'll be good for the community.”
Some would prefer a more formal commitment. Commissioner Courtney Durrett, who represents North Knoxville and Fountain City, asked during the meeting if Boyd would consider entering into a community benefits agreement.
Community benefits agreements typically require a developer to provide public amenities and programs in exchange for public support. The enforceable agreements are made between the developer and community organizations or a consortium of stakeholders, not governments. Provisions can include wage minimums, job training programs, minority contractor requirements, funding for community organizations, the construction of energy efficient buildings and more.
Boyd was cool to the idea of a formal agreement, however.
“We've got a track record of being committed and making a difference,” he said during Thursday’s meeting. “It's not like some outside entity that you're trying to coerce into doing something good for them to come into the city. We're already here. We're already committed. We can outline certain specific commitments, but I can say here personally now that we're committed to this community forever, and we're committed to this part of the community, and we're eager to find new ways in which to give back.”
Boyd’s local philanthropic efforts include support for the University of Tennessee and other schools, tnAchieves, dog parks, the Old City Urban Garden and numerous nonprofit organizations.
Boyd, who grew up in South Knoxville, has emphasized his local roots, and he said he named GEM Development Group, which would build the private development that would surround the stadium, after the Gem Theatre. The Gem was the movie house in what is now the Old City that African-Americans could patronize during the segregation era.
Steve Davis, a Bearden High School graduate and former University of Tennessee football player who became a successful businessman in Chicago, is the president of GEM Development. His grandmother owned a store at the corner of Vine Avenue and Patton Street, and his mother grew up in Austin Homes, which is across First Creek from the stadium site. Davis takes the challenge personally.
“You know, when they said that people in East Knoxville are worse off than they were 50 years ago,” he said. “This has not been a problem that was created overnight. There is no silver bullet, the stadium won't be a silver bullet, but I think it can make a really, really good dent.”
For Davis, the stadium can be a catalyst for the community. “As much as I love philanthropy, I believe investment is much better, because investment is sustainable,” he said. “And this stadium can and will be an investment in the East Knoxville community.”
Boyd said that with the help of Kesler and the Beck Center, he’s forming a task force to make sure the stadium honors the past and becomes part of the future of East Knoxville.
Others want a seat at the table as well. A group of leaders from various community organizations issued an open letter last week requesting more public input before decisions are made. They’re seeking appointments to the board of the Sports Authority, which is the joint city-county entity formed to build the stadium if the project moves forward.
“Our organizations include residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, labor unions, community groups, business owners, and non-profits,” they wrote. “Open, public discussion about the Sports Authority would benefit from the inclusion of our members and the public at large.”
Signatories include representatives of Jobs with Justice, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Knox Liberty Organization, Appalachian Voices, the City Council Movement, Democratic Socialists of America, United Campus Workers and others.
“We request transparency and public accountability during the negotiations of this proposed project,” they continued. “Our respective memberships, which include a wide variety of individuals with many unique interests and skills, represent many voices concerned about the public interests in this project.”
City Council and County Commission have tentatively planned to vote on Sports Authority board members in March. Though the focus will likely remain mostly on the financial viability of the stadium project, its less tangible effects on the community promise to be a major part of the conversation.