Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd makes first pitch for downtown Knoxville stadium

Tyler Whetstone
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd has been flirting with the idea of a downtown Knoxville ballpark for several years, and now things are heating up.

The Knoxville businessman and University of Tennessee System president laid out his plans in an exclusive interview with Knox News – an opening pitch of sorts – for a $142 million mixed-use stadium complex modeled after Chicago’s Wrigleyville.

Boyd hopes the plan is so attractive the city or county, or both, will jump on board with tens of millions of dollars in additional funding.

The proposed stadium, along with Jim Clayton’s planned science museum at the current home of the Knoxville Police Department, would “completely change the center of gravity in Knoxville” toward East Knoxville.

Randy Boyd, owner of the Tennessee Smokies, presents possible plans for the team's new baseball stadium in Old City in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Boyd and company are finalizing their ballpark proposal on property he owns downtown.

“Our community needs a dream for the future. This could be it,” Boyd said. “Coming out of these chaotic times we need something that rallies people together, something for people to get excited about. We’re hopeful this could be one that could do it. And it’s going to be an investment in an area that’s been overlooked for decades.”

The city, under previous mayor Madeline Rogero, announced it was working on a deal for a stadium for the Double A baseball team based in Sevier County, but Rogero ended up delaying the effort, not wanting to tie the hands of the next mayor with a major financial commitment.

More:Smokies baseball stadium in Knoxville may be getting closer to reality

Those conversations also didn't take place with the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes long-term planning particularly hard and is forcing municipalities to tighten their belts.

To this point, there has been no indication of how much funding, if any, the city or county is willing to provide.

A ‘bridge to East Knoxville’

Boyd, a born salesman, has been giving one-on-one presentations of the public/private concept to city and county business and political leaders in recent months in a spacious loft overlooking Gay Street, one of his go-to spots.

What Boyd is offering and what he still needs are significant, but he told Knox News it would be a “bridge for East Knoxville,” helping renew areas that were blocked off from the rest of the city when James White Parkway and Interstate 40 were built.

Renderings of a possible Tennessee Smokies Double A baseball park in Knoxville's Old City with downtown Knoxville in the background.

Boyd would provide the property, roughly 7 acres and multiple city blocks of the Old City he purchased for $6 million in 2016 along with ancillary properties he’s purchased since.

The main piece of property – formerly owned by Knox Rail Salvage – is topped by the iconic water tower emblazoned now with a UT logo and previously used by Boyd as a billboard when he ran for governor in 2018.

Like everything else during the pandemic, minor league baseball has been in flux, with its 2020 season long ago canceled and major league partners jettisoning lower-level affiliates. Simply put: much of minor league baseball is up in the air.

The top three levels – Single, Double and Triple A affiliates – are considered safe, however. The Smokies are one of the 120 teams that remain. Kevin Reichard, editor and publisher of Ballpark Digest, said the Smokies' future is secure.

What's more, minor league stadium deals expire every 25 years. Boyd's contract with Sevier County ends after the 2024 season. Now is the time to act if he wants to move the team.

Boyd group pays for development

The project's selling point is the $142 million mixed-use apartment and community space that would surround the park. The 630,000-square-feet project would have an Old City-styled veneer that fits the warehouse character of the area, Boyd told Knox News.

The buildings would overlook the stadium and like Wrigley Field – home of the Chicago Cubs, the Smokies' major league affiliate – have bleacher seating on top of the apartments.

There also would be space for retail and restaurants and breweries. All of it would be in the Old City, adjacent to downtown.

“This is different than a lot of stadiums which are built on a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy,” he said. “We’re already coming – we’re already committed to coming with the stadium.”

More:Gem Theatre was the main movie house for Knoxville's black community | Opinion

Financing for the complex would come from the GEM Community Development Group, a recently created partnership whose name derives from East Knoxville’s historic Gem Theatre, a Black community gathering point that opened in 1913 and closed 50 years later.

“It was the foundation of the community. When you talked to people who grew up in East Knoxville they say this was the centerpiece, the gathering place ... We’re hopeful this new gem will be the foundation of the future of East Knoxville,” Boyd said.

Randy Boyd, owner of the Tennessee Smokies, presents possible plans for the team's new baseball stadium in Old City in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Boyd and company are finalizing their ballpark proposal on property he owns downtown.

City/county would pay for the park

The plan is not complete without the roughly 7,000-seat ballpark. Boyd estimates it would cost roughly $65 million for the stadium, a figure that includes a 20% contingency to cover cost overruns, meaning that portion of the project could come in at about $52 million at the low end.

For comparison sake, First Tennessee Park, the stadium for the Triple A Nashville Sounds that opened in 2015 immediately west of downtown Nashville, cost roughly $73 million, not including land acquisition costs, according to numbers provided by the city.

The Knox Rail Salvage property as seen from the corner of Willow Ave. and Florida St. in Knoxville’s Old City photographed on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

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.

This tracks with what city officials – like Chief Operating Officer David Brace – have previously said about a possible ballpark when he said a stadium could provide host 200 to 300 events a year.

“We want it to be part of the community ... we want the Wrigley, Camden Yards (and) Fenway Park kind of feel,” Boyd said. “Nobody, I don’t think, provides a better baseball experience than Wrigley when you think of the neighborhood.”

Murphy's in Wrigleyville.

Boyd estimates the complex would employ more than 3,000 people and provide some $1.1 billion in economic impact over 30 years.

“If not this, what? What other project can the community imagine that could create more jobs and create more excitement in a part of town that’s been overlooked?” Boyd asked.

Where the project stands

Boyd has spoken with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and representatives from Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon's administration and says they, like Rogero, are open to the idea, but any plans or timetable is up to them, he said.

An aggressive timeline – if everything went according to plan and there were no delays – would put baseball in Knoxville by the spring of 2023.

County spokesperson Mike Donila said Jacobs supports the idea of a ballpark in the Old City but said it is too early to know what involvement the county will have in any proposed public/private partnership.

"We are evaluating the different approaches cities have taken to support sporting venues with public financing," city spokesperson Kristin Farley said in an emailed statement. "We are excited about exploring the opportunity with other partners. Community-wide support and buy-in will be critical to any public-private partnership."

Boyd has also spent time speaking with City Council members and county commissioners and he’s met with representatives from the East Knoxville Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

John Schoonmaker, the Knox County Commission Finance Committee chairman, met with Boyd earlier this summer. He isn’t sure whether the county could help with the proposal.

“Really, I wish I could answer that,” Schoonmaker told Knox News. “I’m still wondering how things will play out with the virus. I just keep hoping things will get better, better, better but every day we see new cases ... I don’t know. I’m just really cautious.”

In the coming months, the Boyd team will begin tearing down buildings and doing geotech and other work that's necessary for anything to be built on the property, baseball or no baseball.

Impact on neighboring properties

Tom Brandon purchased a corner lot of Willow Avenue for $300,000 in 2006, according to county property records. He told Knox News he uses the two-story building for storage and calls it his retirement plan.

It isn’t much to look at: the building’s paint is peeling, and it's covered in graffiti. It is, however, right across the street from Boyd’s expansive property.

707 Willow Ave. in Knoxville’s Old City photographed on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

Knox News reported in early 2019 that the Boyds had been approaching property owners in the Old City, putting feelers out about potential moves. Brandon said he was one of those property owners, and he told Knox News he was approached again earlier this year.

Brandon, like other property owners in the area, was approached by R.M. Moore real estate, now NAI Koella/RM Moore. Thomas Boyd, Old City property developer and Randy Boyd's son, previously said principal broker Roger Moore is a family friend.

Brandon declined to say what he was offered for the property, but he said it wasn’t enough.

“I can’t buy 30,000 square feet for what they offered me for it ... I can’t replace it for that price,” he said.

Without getting into specifics, Boyd said he would “still be open” to buying more land but the ballpark doesn’t require it and he’d just as soon have other developers try their hand.

“There’s plenty of opportunity to go around,” he said.

Correction: A 20% cost contingency to cover any cost overruns for the proposed baseball stadium is included in the estimated $65 million price tag, meaning that portion of the project could come in at about $52 million on the low end.

Email Tyler Whetstone at tyler.whetstone@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. If you enjoy Tyler's coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing.