Carolina stadium offers good lesson

July 11, 1997

Ron McKee, general manager of the Asheville Tourists Class A baseball team, is not a man to gush. When speaking of the new stadium his now-Colorado Rockies affiliate received six years ago, he's careful to explain that new digs aren't always the answer. Also, he's cautious about comparing Asheville with Hagerstown.

Modestly, he says attendance "only" increased from 102,000 fans to more than 140,000 a year. And McKee is obviously wistful of the old, 1924-vintage stadium, which was one of the last wooden ballparks left in America.

Still, if for no reason other than safety, a new stadium had to be built. Now, "it's the social place to be in Western North Carolina," McKee said. "It doesn't make any difference if you like baseball or not."


That's what baseball supporters in Hagerstown are shooting for. But they are becoming increasingly frustrated with elected officials who apparently are using the new-stadium issue for their own purposes - latching onto an anti-stadium perspective hoping it will be a politically popular save-the-taxpayers issue.

"We had some opposition from people who did not see it as a money producing venture," said Gene Rainey, who presided over the board of County Commissioners responsible for moving the Asheville stadium forward. "They pointed to the rather limited number of the population who would attend the games. As it turned out, that was a shortsighted view."

The commissioners passed a half-penny tax-rate increase to pay for the $4 million stadium - a facility that's now bringing $2.5 million a year into the community.

For the record, no one is asking the Hagerstown council or commissioners to foot the bill for a stadium here. The bulk of the funding would likely come from the state and it will almost certainly go to a new stadium somewhere else if Hagerstown can't get its ducks in a row.

There are bound to be local costs, which is only fair because we would reap tax benefits. The rest is simple. All it would take from the local delegates, council members and commissioners is a simple "Yes, we're interested" and the rest would likely fall into place. But some local politicians seem to have trouble saying yes to progress.

They should talk to Rainey. "I would recommend to any community that it be done. It is good, clean growth that contributes to the ambiance and atmosphere."

"If you have a team now you should hold onto it because they're going to be harder and harder to get," Rainey added.

That's the spot Hagerstown is in. Suns owner Winston Blenckstone, gentleman that he is, has made no threats to leave, but attendance is so shabby at the old, hard-to-find stadium he would be justified if he did.

"We weren't threatening to leave, we were fighting to stay; I think Winston is doing the same thing. He's fighting to stay." McKee said.

People say they don't want their tax money going to a new stadium. But their tax money is going to go to a new stadium whether they want it or not - if it's not here it will be in Aberdeen, or elsewhere in Maryland.

People say they never go to they ball games. So? I don't have any kids; I still pay for schools, teachers and textbooks. Yet I benefit from schools in residual ways - on the chance that they teach kids to read and the even remoter chance that kids pick up the newspaper and the absolutely outlandish chance that they would read my column.

So it is with a stadium. Dollars trickle down to gas stations, restaurants, brick plants and construction workers. And entertainment taxes benefit everyone in the community.

It may be politically correct to oppose the stadium, but it's not economically correct. Neither is it smart.

About the time Asheville was building a new stadium, the old, Orioles-affiliated Suns were packing up and leaving town. Thanks to leaders like Sen. Don Munson and Merle Elliott we got a new team. Now their leadership is called for again to be sure the new-era Suns stay in town.

The next two months will be crucial because the team can option out of Hagerstown this year.

Blenckstone should tap leaders in the business community on the shoulder, all of whom stand to benefit from a new ballyard. They in turn should impress upon the elected officials the importance of the issue. He would do well to get the soccer folks on board. "My one regret is that this isn't a joint use stadium," Rainey said. "Soccer is getting to be big down here."

Here too. A new ballpark should be able to handle a soccer configuration. Baseball nuts, soccer nuts and generally-in-favor-of-progress nuts should all come together, soon, in support of this project. It may be our one and only chance. Someone needs to move.

"In the end, it's just a matter of political leadership," Rainey said. "We just went ahead and did it. At some point you have to stop cutting bait and start fishing."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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