Ground broken; baseball will be back

Randy and Jenny Boyd of Boyd Sports give thanks to community leaders and supporters at the official groundbreaking June 13, 2023, for a Knoxville stadium. (Photo: Jim Matheny/Knox County Government)

Elected officials and business and community leaders turned shovels of dirt June 13, 2023, in the long-awaited official groundbreaking for a new stadium in East Knoxville that will transform a dilapidated warehouse district into a thriving center of sports, concerts, special events, restaurants, retail stores, residential units and hotels.

As Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said to the 300-plus people gathered at the site that morning: “We are gathered in this beautiful city to join past and present, to witness and to celebrate. I use those words because today feels a bit like a wedding. We’ve had a long courtship, the relationship has had some ups and downs, we’ve learned that trust and collaboration is the key to a bright future in Knoxville.”

Our last blog outlined the journey to get to this point amid a global pandemic and can be read HERE.

Under a bright blue sky with free Cracker Jack boxes for attendees and a sound system ready to play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the crowd heard from project partners, including Rev. Reneé Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which has ensured that the significance of the area to the Black community – Kincannon pointed out the city’s 1958 urban renewal project wrongly displaced hundreds of Black businesses and homes – will be honored and remembered.

“We are advising this team throughout the process on capturing our rich African American history and culture in this area, as well as acknowledging the multi-racial history of baseball in our community,” Kesler said.

Rev. Rev. Reneé Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, speaks at the ceremony. (Photo: Jim Matheny/Knox County Government)

Kesler noted, “The average income in this area here behind me when we started discussing this project was just $17,000 per year for a family. To begin to fix that, we need jobs. We need a way to take advantage of the booming economy of the downtown area. We need infrastructure to support and drive attention toward local small businesses and enterprises.

“I am happy to say that will the support of everyone here, we are doing that now.”

The stadium project team comprises the City of Knoxville; Knox County; Sports Authority; Boyds Sports; GEM Community Development Group; Knoxville Area Urban League; Beck Cultural Exchange Center; Partners Development; construction team of Denark Construction, Barton Malow and Elite Diversified Construction, Inc.; design team of BarberMcMurry Architects, DIA and Populous; and Knoxville and Knox County elected officials.

A Smokies Baseball flag flies atop a pole marking the location of home plate. (Photo: Maria Cornelius)

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that we are bringing baseball back,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said. “To me, this is a perfect example of what makes Knox County a fantastic place to live: We know how to come together as one team with a united goal to get things done.”

The springboard for the project was Randy Boyd, who has operated the Tennessee Smokies baseball team since buying it in 2013. Knoxville had a baseball team until 1999, but city and county leadership then couldn’t agree on a site for a new stadium, and the team relocated to Kodak in Sevier County and began play in 2000. In two years – and 25 years later – the Knoxville Smokies will play ball at the new stadium in 2025.

“Woven into the fabric of the neighborhood, this publicly owned, multi-use stadium will connect East Knoxville with the Old City and downtown and rejuvenate an area of Knoxville that’s been overlooked for decades,” Boyd said. “Let’s put our shovels in the ground and get to work on making these opportunities a reality.”

Groundbreaking video by Grand Slam Knox

“Today, we start building,” said Dr. Charles Lomax, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League when he started the ceremony. “The incredible talent and visionaries gathered on this site have worked for several years to get to this point. This area, filled with such a rich history, will now serve as a gateway between the Old City and East Knoxville.

“We all look forward to returning in two years to officially open a new stadium and celebrate new possibilities in East Knoxville.”

Baseball will be back in the perfect place. Well done by all.

Maria Cornelius, a writer/editor for Moxley Carmichael, is a lifelong baseball fan and longtime Smokies season ticket holder.