Republican state lawmakers peppered Governor Bill Lee’s finance team with questions Tuesday about his proposal to authorize $500 million in bonds to help the Tennessee Titans build a new gated stadium. Some said the request surprised them because they had approved a tax break for the team’s planned stadium upgrades last year.
The Titans stadium bond proposal was among new items the GOP governor’s team presented to lawmakers, seeking their approval to fund priorities for the upcoming budget.
Other significant proposed additions include $80 million for a month-long break from state and local grocery taxes; $78.1 million to revitalize airports; $20 million to help develop the Memphis waterfront on the Mississippi River; $20 million to reduce privileged taxes paid by a handful of professional types; $17 million to help renovate a Nashville race track in hopes of landing a NASCAR race; and $15 million to invest in new voting machines that produce a paper trail of votes in 61 counties without such equipment. Lawmakers are considering whether to require the equipment.
But lawmakers have focused their attention on the proposed new home for the Titans as officials shifted from attempting to upgrade the existing Nissan Stadium to planning a new stadium next door after renovation costs more than doubled to $1.2 billion.
Butch Eley, the governor’s principal deputy, told lawmakers the money would go to a new covered stadium, saying $2 billion is within the rough range of the full cost. Whether it’s a fixed or retractable roof, having an enclosed facility could help Nashville compete in the biggest sporting events or not, from the Super Bowl to NCAA basketball’s Final Four.
Eley said he wanted the state to be less invested than the Titans and the Nashville government combined.
The push comes as the Buffalo Bills clinched a deal on Monday for a $1.4 billion new outdoor stadium project, fueled by a record $850 million price tag for taxpayers to help secure the future franchise in the region for the next 30+ years.
Both funding setups are already attracting skeptics who don’t think the government should help fund professional sports facilities. The Beacon Center of Tennessee and Americans for Prosperity of Tennessee, both of which prioritize free-market policies, spoke out against the Titans’ plan.
“The only break Tennessees can expect is a one-month grocery sales tax holiday,” said Tori Venable, U.S. State’s Prosperity Director for Tennessee. “Don’t add insult to injury by giving resources to taxpayers for the benefit of a privileged few.”
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson noted that legislation approved last year was aimed at improving stadiums.
He said the legislation allows the Titans to retain sales tax generated inside Nissan Stadium while continuing to repay debt from an initial issuance of government bonds, scheduled to be repaid in 2029. He said lawmakers also approved letting the Titans keep half of the sales tax. from the campus, the team plans to develop there, whether in hotels, restaurants or other businesses.
Eley said that once the area is redeveloped, the state’s share of taxes on the new development would be used to repay the $500 million, “without current taxpayers’ money being earmarked for it.” He said the positive economic impact would also extend outside the stadium complex.
Johnson said he had “heartburn” that the stadium proposal would “most likely” cost the state money, “ultimately subsidizing” it. He wondered why the state shouldn’t wait for firmer plans from the Titans.
Eley said the cost would likely be much lower than the proposed $55 million annually for debt service, saying the 6% interest and surety factored into the proposal is a conservative estimate.
Eley explained that the administration thinks costs will only increase if the state waits, saying it’s “a good year to move forward and put our stake in the ground and say we think it’s was a good investment for Tennessee.”
Earlier this month, Titans chairman Burke Nihill discussed the team’s plans at a Metro Sports Authority board meeting. The Titans are currently working with Metro Nashville officials on the design and construction costs of a new stadium in the Nissan parking lots between the stadium and Interstate 24.
Nihill noted that inflation is driving up costs, and Nashville and the Titans want to finish the job in time for the 2026 season.
The stadium opened in 1999 on a 30-year lease, and the Titans originally planned to renovate it for $292 million. Nashville officials have been working on plans for a year to redevelop hundreds of acres around Nissan Stadium on the east bank of the Cumberland River.
This included the renovation of the Nissan Stadium, with an initial estimate of $600 million. This doubled as contractors raised new concerns about the state of the stadium and its infrastructure.
Nihill said a new stadium was the best long-term value.