Planning Ballpark Benefits

Planning Ballpark Benefits

Randy Boyd has teamed with community organizations on the proposed multi-use stadium project, but some want a more comprehensive agreement.

by scott barker • May 12, 2021
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Demolition work at the site of the proposed multi-use stadium adjacent to the Old City.

Proponents of the proposed ballpark at the edge of the Old City consistently say the facility needs to be more than a baseball stadium. Critics say likewise, though they aren’t necessarily talking about it being a multi-use venue.

GEM Community Development Group has enlisted the help of the Knoxville Area Urban League to recruit minority-owned businesses as contractors for the project.

Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd’s proposal for Knoxville and Knox County to build a $65 million multi-use stadium comes with a plan to invest about $140 million in private dollars in a mixed-use development ringing the venue.

Some of the most galvanizing discussion has been about the impact beyond the fences of the stadium on the surrounding community, primarily economically challenged East Knoxville.

GEM Community Development Group, formed by Boyd to build the mixed-use development, issued a press release last week outlining its efforts to include minority-owned businesses in the construction and post-construction phases, as well as commitments to community improvements.

Some, however, are advocating for a formal and comprehensive community benefits agreement, which would be a legally binding contract between Boyd’s business entities and community organizations outlining specific improvements that the development must provide. 

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.

Community benefits agreements have been used during the past two decades for similar projects in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Nashville.

Instead of seeking a broad community benefits agreement, Boyd has entered into formal agreements with longstanding community organizations. Some of the arrangements include provisions often found in community development agreements.

That has not assuaged some critics of the project. Councilwoman Amelia Parker, for example, discounts Boyd’s efforts as charitable gestures that don’t reflect the needs of East Knoxville.

Boyd’s Approach

Steve Davis, president of GEM Community Development Group, said the development would have a positive impact on the surrounding community.

 

“This is a transformational project for East Knoxville, the members of its business and residential communities and specifically the African-American community,” he said in the GEM press release. “I would not be involved in this project if it were just another development opportunity. I am doing it to give something back to my hometown and the people with whom I grew up. This development site will produce tangible benefits and results and reinvigorate an area that has long been in neglect.”

One of the most significant steps GEM Community Development Group has taken is entering into an agreement with the Knoxville Area Urban League, committing to hiring women- and minority-owned firms to make up at least 15 percent of the contractors and subcontractors on the project. (Boyd serves on the Urban League’s board of directors.)

The contract calls for GEM to assist with training and placement of individuals for available jobs. GEM also plans to establish an apprenticeship program that will train workers for jobs on the project and give them skills for the future. 

“It is the largest economic development project that Knoxville has seen in a long time, and we believe it will spawn other projects,” Phyllis Nichols, executive director of the Urban League, said in an interview.

Nichols said her office has been inundated with calls from minority-owned companies seeking contracts on the project, even though the Urban League is just ramping up its efforts and construction of the stadium has not been approved.

“Our emphasis is on helping small Black-owned businesses that haven’t had the capacity or opportunity to participate in projects,” she said. “This will result not just in seasonal jobs, but in permanent jobs.”

The development team has also formed a cultural and historical advisory committee led by Rev. Renée Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. The goal is to honor the African-American history and culture of the location of the project.

Other initiatives include funding the expansion of youth baseball and softball at Claude Walker Park and Ballfields in East Knoxville and a playground at nearby Green Magnet Academy.

“I want to be sure the Black community specifically benefits from this project,” said Davis, a businessman and former University of Tennessee football player. “The average family income in this ZIP code is $17,000 per year. Supporting more than 3,000 jobs in the area will be the most impactful aspect of the development. The initiative also includes identifying minority entrepreneurs who want to establish a business in the area.”

Davis, who forged his business career in Chicago, has reached an agreement with Pellissippi State Community College to expand his Chicago-based Tuskegee NEXT program. Named to honor the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, Tuskegee introduces at-risk youth to careers in aviation.

Alternative Takes

Parker, the elected official who has been most vocal about the need for a community benefits agreement, was dismissive about the commitments announced by Boyd’s team. 

“I have no interest in commenting on Boyd or Davis’s charity work,” she wrote in an email to Compass. “That has nothing to do with a legally binding community benefits agreement that reflects the demands of the community. … Currently what has been offered by Mr. Boyd are merely verbal commitments to engage in charity work that he deems important (not anything the surrounding neighborhoods have called for) with an organization on which he serves on the board.” 

County Commissioner Courtney Durrett, who represents North Knoxville and Fountain City, said she’s not necessarily insistent on a community benefits agreement but wants to make sure the East Knoxville community benefits from the stadium and that Boyd’s team engages the neighborhoods in the area. 

“You get more buy-in when you actually sit down and listen,” she said.

Durrett said she likes GEM’s list of commitments, but officials need assurances that the firm will follow through.

“We need to make sure that those commitments are fulfilled,” she said. “If done right, I feel like there's great potential to bring in more investment. If done correctly. If done right.”

There is a group of community organizations developing an agenda for community benefits, though spokesman Charles al-Bawi stopped short of saying it would propose a formal community benefits agreement and gave no details of the group’s intentions.

“Rescue and Restoration is announcing itself as a coalition that wants no public funding for the baseball stadium, and we will release other demands over the next few weeks,” al-Bawi said.

Longtime African-American activists Zimbabwe Matavou and Umoja Abdul-Ahad assembled the coalition, which consists of several predominantly Black organizations, according to al-Bawi, though he declined to name them.

Staying the Course

Davis acknowledged the talk of a community benefits agreement, but said GEM’s approach would accomplish the same goals.

“We believe that our agreements with the City of Knoxville, Knox County and Knoxville Area Urban League, and working with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Pellissippi State and individual schools, youth groups and businesses will lead to the progress, diversity and opportunity that we all want to achieve,” he said.

Nichols emphasized that the Urban League’s contract with GEM contains enforceable benchmarks and that the organization essentially would be a contractor for the project. 

“We’re very confident about our agreement and what we can accomplish,” she said.

Davis added that the Urban League, Beck Center and other organizations are “established stalwarts of the community” with a decades-long track record of delivering on commitments.

“Members of the development team have been meeting with key members of the East Knoxville community for more than a year to accumulate input and suggestions,” he said. “Community engagement has been a priority for us from the beginning. We met with numerous key players in the community even before the project was announced.”

Stephanie Welch, Knoxville’s chief economic and community development officer and the city’s point person on the stadium project, said the city and county would continue to gather input from citizens as the decision-making process unfolds. But Boyd’s current approach will be followed.

“We are continuing to listen to the community, which may result in the identification of additional agreements,” she said. “These benefits will be formalized through the development/lease agreements.”