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Fate of new stadium uncertain

March 15, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - When he met with Maryland officials last month in his effort to secure state funding for a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns, team owner Winston R. Blenckstone heard one message loud and clear.

Get broad-based community support - and dollars - if you want us to get involved.

But in the year since Blenckstone first told local officials that he would need public funds for a stadium project, that support hasn't come together.

Meanwhile, the fate of the $10 million project - as well as the future of minor league baseball in Hagerstown - remains unclear.

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"That's the unfortunate position we're in now," said Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager, a supporter of replacing outdated Municipal Stadium.

Sager is convinced the city needs a new stadium to keep the Suns. Throughout the country, cities have added new facilities, offering amenities like modern concession areas and luxury boxes, that have bypassed Hagerstown's.

"It's not in the same league, so to speak," Sager said.

So far, the Suns have $3 million committed for the project, Blenckstone said. The city has offered $2.5 million, most of which would be spent for a new access road. The Suns would pay another $500,000 toward the construction of luxury boxes.

But efforts to get more local funding have been unsuccessful.

"The hangup is the county," Blenckstone said.

He said he came away from the meeting with representatives of Gov. Parris N. Glendening feeling good about a possible dollar-for-dollar match, with the state providing as much as $5 million for the stadium.

Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann confirmed the governor is interested in getting state funding for the project.

There's only one catch.

"The county's got to indicate they want to get involved with this thing," Blenckstone said.

But county officials point to their own shallow pockets - made even less deep by the water and sewer debt crisis - as the reason they don't want to come up with the couple of million dollars that will be needed to close the gap in local funds.

"We didn't say we favored it or opposed it, it's just that we don't have the money," said County Commissioner John S. Shank.

Shank said whatever county money is available should be spent on improvements to the Hagerstown Fairgrounds, where plans call for adding soccer fields and other recreational activities.

Blenckstone said because there is so much land available on the 68-acre site in the northwest part of the city where the new stadium is proposed to be built, there could a sports complex with fields for youth recreational activities. Parking could be shared.

Blenckstone said he has also failed to get more than "an inkling" of support from the county's legislative delegation. Only Del. John P. Donoghue, a Democrat whose legislative district covers the city, has publicly stated his support for the stadium project.

But some lawmakers are sensitive about promoting state spending for a stadium for the Suns, especially after last year's heated battle that saw most of them opposing public funding for two professional football stadiums in the state.

They also say there simply isn't money available - at least not the kind the stadium would require. The General Assembly is expected to approve about $20 million statewide this year for a variety of local projects - from sewer lines to homeless shelters.

To ask that a quarter of that money goes to one baseball stadium is a bit much, they said.

"You need to ask for what has a possibility of getting money," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said he's concerned that seeking bond funding for the stadium could hurt the county's request to secure bond funds for other projects, such building a new headquarters for Community Rescue Service and renovating the Memorial Recreation Center.

Poole and McKee said when they were asked for state funding last fall the team didn't have a firm figure for the project's cost or a marketing plan completed to justify the expense.

"In my view, they really didn't have it pulled together," Poole said.

But Blenckstone said the delegation has been given plenty of information on the stadium project.

"Some of these people will deny that anything is being asked for, but that's because they don't support it," he said.

Blenckstone refuses to say how long he can keep playing in Municipal Stadium. His current 10-year lease has an escape clause that will likely be exercised after this season, he said. He said he would prefer to sign one-year leases until the matter of a new stadium is resolved.

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