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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 27, 2017

Newest Lookouts owner happy on Hawk Hill




Turning 18, for a person, is normally a time for maturing, for coming of age. But for the Chattanooga Lookouts’ home stadium, AT&T Field, turning 18 has been a time of telltale signs of premature aging.

Built for a remarkably low economic amount in 1999 by then-owner Frank Burke and his late father, former CBS President Daniel Burke, the stadium was never designed to last forever. And as the sale of the franchise became unavoidable after the death of principal stockholder Daniel Burke, his son became less and less willing to invest in what it took to keep it current – much less modern. Perhaps, he was feeling a little deja vu.

Engel Stadium, the home to the Lookouts since 1930, was still the team’s home field when Burke bought the club in 1995. While he, like his fans, found a lot to love in the historic facility, it was costing more and more each season to merely maintain it.  Burke needed to look elsewhere. He and his father saw a stadium rising in a place no one else could.

Built on Hawk Hill, part of the closed Kirkman Technical High School, BellSouth Park (its original name) came to be built after the elder Burke stepped off the dimensions of a ballfield on the plateau hard by U.S. 27, the  “Corridor ” to locals.

The view is spectacular; the location is on, perhaps, the most valuable piece of undeveloped property owned by the city of Chattanooga at the time. In fact, the land still belongs to the city; a complicated lease conceived and signed by Burke at the time spells out in detail that, should the tenant Chattanooga Lookouts ever move, the ownership will restore Hawk Hill to its original, pristine state – the better to earn top dollar in redeveloping it.

But owner Jason Freier, whose group bought the franchise from the Burke estate in March of 2015, isn’t currently of a mind to play that card, even though his ownership group has two other brand new stadiums, in Fort Wayne and Columbia, South Carolina.

“As long as fans are coming out and we can serve them well, we’re not in a situation where we want to change,” Freier said this week. “In other places we’ve been, there had been a push for a new ballpark because the old park did not work anymore. We’re not in an Engel Stadium situation here.”

Engel Stadium situation, indeed. Still sitting on the corner of Third and O’Neal in benign neglect, Joe Engel’s Stadium (its original name) belongs to a university (UT-Chattanooga) that has not had a baseball team in three decades on property that is coveted by the region’s largest hospital, among others.

But until 1999, Frank Burke and a devoted group of assistants (including current G.M. Rich Mozingo) made a go of it at Engel Stadium, fighting an unwinnable war against rust, flooding, bad plumbing, the worst modern press box in the minor leagues and a restaurant that was built during “renovations” by a clueless architectural firm that tore out seats, put in a glass facade and didn’t bother noticing you could not see the playing field.

Once the Burkes cried “uncle,” Engel Stadium was left to the pigeons and the college baseball program of a university, Tennessee Temple that no longer exists. Except for a handful of high school games, the venerable ball yard moved closer and closer to disuse.

But then Engel got an unexpected curtain call. Warner Bros. Studio associate Legendary Pictures chose Engel Stadium to replicate Ebbets Field for the Jackie Robinson biography, “42.” Filmed throughout the summer of 2012, the field was dressed up somewhat and the stands were populated with extras, dummies and, later, CGIs to simulate a full house in Brooklyn.

The film production company built a grand, scale-accurate copy of the Ebbets Field scoreboard inside the park, but with no Chattanooga city or UTC official owning any vision or sense of history, no attempt was made to keep it in place and the producers honored their contract by tearing it down after filming was completed. Engel Stadium, after one final summer of action, was again deserted.

FYI: 42 was a modest hit. Starring Chadwick Boseman before he became Marvel superhero Black Panther, made $97 million domestically on a $40 million production budget.

Then-owner Burke and the Lookouts allowed Engel Stadium a last hurrah in 2014. As hosts of the mid-season Southern League All-Star Game, the Lookouts opted to stage the day-before features, most notably the Home Run Derby, at the old lady. Concession stands and port-o-lets were rolled in and a nice crowd watched future Cubs MVP Kris Bryant win the Derby. (No attendance was announced).

With Mozingo very much part of Freier’s operation, the proper perspective is in place that any problems with AT&T Field are minor, if not trivial, compared to the cost and inconvenience of playing at Engel.

“There was not a lot of investment in the ballpark,” Freier said of the stadium and circumstance his group inherited in 2015. “There were areas of the park that weren’t terribly useful. There were no stands in the left field corner; there are now. Plus, our suites hadn’t been updated for 16 years and that was one of the first things we did.

“We continue to have our hands full,” the owner continued. “We’ve made progress in that direction and have a dozen things we can do that will make things even better. Last year, for example, we added a full-time facilities person.”

Part of the speculation that Freier might be looking to leave Hawk Hill sometime in the near future centers on the simple fact that the team earns zero in parking revenue. Every existing lot, save the handicapped parking circle atop the hill, are owned by the city or a private contractor. Surprisingly, Freier is comfortable with that arrangement.

“Truth is, our other stadiums don’t make much in parking because they are in urban areas themselves,” he explained. “Columbia is next to a construction site, and Fort Wayne is set up a lot like Chattanooga. There are surface lots that serve other purposes during the day. Our biggest difference is that we are set up on the edge of things, not in the middle.”

Other fields

The newer stadiums operated by Freier’s ownership group, Hardball Capital, are the envy of many a minor league owner.

Spirit Communications Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies, opened in 2016. Its capacity is 8,500, includes 16 luxury suites and four concourse suites. Among the amenities is that all concession stands have a clear view of the field – unlike AT&T Field, where all permanent vendors are underneath the stands.

The Columbia stadium cost $37 million to build.

Parkview Field, home of the Fort Wayne Tincaps, opened for business in 2009 and can seat 8,000. It, too, has 16 suites and it, too, cost over $30 million to build ($31 million if you’re a stickler for detail). It is named for a local health center.

The seating capacity of AT&T Field, as of 2008, was listed as 6,160. The 2016 media guide has upped that number to 6,362. The stadium was privately funded by the Burkes with the stipulation that the community buy 1,800 season tickets for the 2000 season. The campaign ended a resounding success with over 2,200 season tickets purchased. Ground was broken in March of 1999.

The stadium was dedicated on April 1, 2000, with the Cincinnati Reds playing the Baltimore Orioles with future Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken Jr. in uniform. George and Barbara Bush threw out the first pitch, and Kathie Lee Gifford sang the National Anthem. The one big oversight: even though the ballpark was named after a major telecommunications concern, Burke failed to install even a single payphone in the park.

That was quickly fixed.

No food gimmicks

Two years into Freier’s ownership, the changes to AT&T Field have varied from the cosmetic – ridding the park of the damned Dodger Blue that Burke forced on the fandom when Los Angeles became a surprising partner from 2009-2014 – to the invisible. A modern checkout system was put in place at every concession stand, for one. The gift shop was doubled in size, for another. The changes will keep on coming, Freier promised.

“We’ve got a significant change whose details we’re still considering. We’re not prepared to make an announcement about that yet,” he said. “The point-of-sale system will be new this year, as well.

“Since our concessions are set apart, and actually take fans away from the game, we’re trying to make them as efficient as possible, to get you back to your seat.”

But Freier cautions that fans should not look for a gimmicky menu. The Lookouts have no intention of vending pricey items of distressing caloric count like the Braves’ Sausage Sundae or Burgerizza; or the Krispy Kreme Donut Dog (ugh!) that the Wilmington, Delaware Bluwhich we’ve gotten great feedback from,” the owner outlined. “We will continue to expand the menu as people present us with good ideas. We have chosen not to get involved with gimmicky food items. We’re not looking to make headlines about our menu.”

The most notable addition has been a broad assortment of basic Mexican food items, from black beans to burritos. Everything else on the menu is something you’d expect to find at a ballpark.

In other words, nothing like the “Punisher,” which if there is a God, will not survive the move from Turner Field to SunTrust Field. Why? You’ll be sorry you asked; here is its description from the Braves themselves:

Country-fried smoked rib meat slathered in a Monster energy drink-infused BBQ sauce, topped with a fresh cut beer-battered onion and “slawsa,” tucked between a toasted and buttered Hawaiian bun and pinned in place with two slices of bacon.

Sort of makes a bratwurst sound like a delicacy.

A big mess

AT&T Field’s single biggest problem is far beyond the Lookouts’ control.

Moving at a glacial pace, TDOT’s “straightening” of U.S. 27/Corridor J is a bigger mess than ever, having moved completely onto the downtown side of the river. The once-attractive view of Cameron Hill to the west is now nothing but mud, concrete and earthmovers.

The $126 million project, the most expensive ever let by TDOT, is not scheduled to be completed until 2019. But against the odds, the Lookouts drew more fans in 2016 than they did in their Southern League championship season of 2015.

“Last year it never rained, but it was very hot; 29 of the 31 days in July were 90 degrees or higher. Twelve days were 95 or higher,” Freier said. “The year before, zero days were over 95, but we had a lot more rain.”

Translation: fans turn out in the heat; they buy caps, they buy cheap fans, they drink beer. Lots of beer. Fans tend to stay away when a game figures to start 90 minutes late, if it’s to be played at all.

He figures Chattanooga motorists have gotten used to the obstacle course that used to be the downtown connector. And that’s probably right on the money.

Attention must be paid

What needs to be crystal clear to fans is that Freier, based in Atlanta, and his local partners almost surely saved the Lookouts from going to an out-of-town interest. No matter how much the Southern League covets Chattanooga as the literal hub of the league, a prospective owner with cash and a stadium plan could have easily carried the day. One day in the indeterminate future, that owner might be Jason Freier.

That is why the city of Chattanooga needs to pay heed to the needs of the current Lookouts ownership group. If they want to build a stadium on the Southside, say, near Moccasin Bend, then build it. If they need some capital improvements that make it safer or cleaner or easier to access, make them. If there are questions about the future of the franchise and the city, then sit down and talk about them.

Aside from that dark day in late 1966 when an aging, ill Joe Engel opted to shut down his beloved Lookouts, removing the club from the minor leagues for a decade, the darkest period for baseball in Chattanooga were the years in the late 80s and early 90s.

Chicago real estate “tycoon” Rick Holtzman ran the team with a lawyer on speed dial and confrontational attitude with the city that could compare with Donald Trump and Congress. If he had been just a wee bit more aggressive in threatening to move the Lookouts if he didn’t get his way, the city of Chattanooga would have said “good riddance.”

It took Frank Burke purchasing the team to bring the Lookouts back into sync with the community and, to be honest, its fan base. They have remained there to this day.

It’s a relationship worth keeping in place, at almost any cost.