What we know about Knoxville’s plan to spend $65m (or more!) on a new Smokies stadium

The Knox County Commission joined the Knoxville city council in approving the creation of a sports authority yesterday, the first step toward building a new stadium for the Tennessee Smokies. The next step is (checks assembly instructions) figuring out what to build and how to pay for it, which looks simple enough. Who’s got an Allen wrench?

We already went over some of the details back in August, but that’s like a decade ago in 2020 time, so a quick recap and update:

  • Smokies owner Randy Boyd, an invisible dog fence baron, failed gubernatorial candidate, and current president of the University of Tennessee, as well as owner of the Johnson City Cardinals, Greeneville Reds, and Elizabethton Twins of the just-demoted-to-amateur-college-ball Appalachian League, would put up 11 acres of land and $140 million toward a new stadium complex that would also include a “mixed-use development.” The city and county would put up an additional $65 million.
  • Does squeezing a baseball stadium plus a bunch of apartment buildings onto one 11-acre site look like a topological impossibility? You bet it does! (Boyd has said the development would include “apartments with balconies overlooking the field,” which it kind of would have to; he has not said whether the Smokies’ left fielder would double as a doorman.)
  • Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has said that “in order for me to be supportive, this project cannot and will not put any additional tax burdens on Knox Countians,” which will be a neat trick given that $65 million public price tag. Presumably there will be some sort of TIF deal where future taxes from the project will be kicked back to pay for construction, or something similar, but no details have been released yet.

That still leaves a ton of questions, including how Boyd’s land “donation” will work: If it means he gets to use his land to build a lucrative development project but hand over the deed to the public so he can get out of paying property taxes on it, that could be a significant hidden subsidy on top of the $65 million in taxpayer cash. There also remains the issue of who would pay Boyd’s buyout fee for the remaining years of his lease on the Smokies’ current stadium in suburban Kodak, which could cost as much as $10 million.

This is all taking place against the backdrop of MLB’s downsizing scheme for minor-league ball, which if nothing else makes having a traditional farm team with actual prospects paid actual salaries seem a more scarce commodity. Which isn’t to say that Boyd will threaten anything like “If you don’t approve this, I can ask MLB to move my Double-A team to Johnson City and stick you with a bunch of college sophomores on summer break” — Knoxville still has the advantages of population and fan base — but you and I and he and the sports authority all know he could, and that’s the kind of leverage a savvy negotiator likes to have.

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