Knoxville, Knox County leaders consider sports authority to make Old City stadium reality

Tyler Whetstone
Knoxville News Sentinel

City and county leaders are considering the creation of a sports authority to oversee the construction and operation of a new minor league baseball park in Knoxville's Old City, Knox News has learned.

The ballpark would be the centerpiece of a massive development project proposed by Randy Boyd, owner of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies baseball team that plays in Kodak. Boyd has promised he could bring $142 million of private money to build 630,000 square feet of restaurants, retail shops and residences around the stadium if Knoxville, Knox County or both together pay $52-65 million for a publicly owned stadium.

“We are excited to continue to have conversations with the Tennessee Smokies baseball team and Knox County leaders about the possibility of bringing baseball to Knoxville," Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon told Knox News in a statement Monday. "We are still early in our discussions, and forming a sports authority is a step that that we can take now to leave options open for financing a potential stadium."

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Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs echoed Kincannon's remarks.

“Working with the city to create a sports authority is the first step in a long process,” he said in a statement Monday. “We look forward to advancing conversations with the Tennessee Smokies baseball team as we believe the entire project will bring value to Knox County – from tourism, to business development and sales tax revenue.”

Local bond attorney Mark Mamantov also confirmed to Knox News that city and county leaders have discussed forming a sports authority, a quasi-government body that acts as a financing arm, and often landlord, for stadiums. The creation of a sports authority is a critical step toward making the stadium plan a reality.

Mamantov said sports authorities are allowed under state law to keep state sales tax generated by the facility — 7 percent on items like tickets, concessions and merchandise —  to be funneled back to the city and county to pay off debt to construct the stadium. He told Knox News the sports authority could generate "probably between $300,000-$400,000 a year depending on how the team does."

Mamantov is an expert in sports authorities who has helped with stadium deals in Jackson, Memphis, Nashville and the Smokies’ current stadium in Kodak, among others.

A rendering shows the aerial view from the west of a proposed baseball stadium and adjacent restaurant, retail and residential development in Knoxville's Old City.

"I am appreciative of the city and county leaders considering this opportunity," Boyd said in a statement Monday to Knox News. "I truly believe this could be the most transformative project in our community’s history and be a catalyst for growth for decades to come. Emerging from a pandemic, the timing couldn’t be more perfect."

Kincannon said she expects the plan will be discussed at the City Council’s Dec. 15 meeting. The County Commission office told Knox News the item is on the agenda for the commission's Dec. 21 meeting.

"I know many Knoxvillians are eager to bring baseball back to Knoxville, and so am I," Kincannon told Knox News. "I look forward to more public discussions about this in the near future.”

In addition to making sure funding was in place for the development around the stadium, Boyd would include in any deal 7 acres he bought in the Old City for $6 million in 2016. In addition to owning the Smokies, Boyd is an entrepreneur and president of the University of Tennessee System.

As Boyd has it drawn up, the park could host concerts and accommodate a soccer field in the outfield. It would include spaces for conferences and a public plaza for markets and watch parties. The Smokies previously played in Knoxville before leaving for Kodak in 1999.

Knoxville city officials — like Chief Operating Officer David Brace — have previously said they would want a stadium capable of hosting 200 to 300 events a year.