Suns 'not going,' says owner

April 08, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

Suns owner Winston Blenckstone said Wednesday the minor league baseball team will play ball in Hagerstown at least through the 1999 season while local officials try to secure funding for a $10 million stadium project.

"We're not going anyplace. Nobody's knocking our door down to take us to another city. We're in no way threatening to leave, never have," Blenckstone said.

Blenckstone in February said that if funding for a stadium did not come through, it might mean the end of the local franchise. At that same time, he said it was possible the team could be sold to an owner who would move it to another city.

This year's Maryland General Assembly session ends Monday and lawmakers did not appropriate funding for a stadium. That means state funds could not be secured before the General Assembly convenes in January 1999, and no money would be available before July 1, 1999.


Blenckstone said he's been too busy preparing for this baseball season to think about extending the lease for the city-owned Municipal Stadium for another year, but that he will do so eventually.

The current one-year lease expires Dec. 31.

Blenckstone said he will extend an agreement with Allegheny Power under which the utility would pay $1 million for the rights to name a new baseball stadium Allegheny Energy Field.

That agreement was to expire Wednesday, but will be extended to July 1, said Debbie Beck, Allegheny spokeswoman.

Beck and Blenckstone said the agreement could be reviewed every six months if necessary.

"When we get to that date we'll see where we are and if we want to continue," Beck said.

"It's a shame that we have to keep living in limbo. If we drew 200,000 people a year to the ballpark we wouldn't have to be asking for help from the city, county and state for a new ballpark, but that isn't happening," Blenckstone said.

Last year, 115,011 people attended the Suns' 66 home games, Blenckstone said. The Class A Toronto Blue Jays affiliate's home opener is Friday. The game starts at 7:05 p.m.

Plans for a new stadium hit a snag in February when the Washington County Commissioners voted not to fund the project. The lack of county support hurt the chances of receiving state funds for the upcoming fiscal year.

Clinching state funding could be a major hurdle next year, said State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

With the governor, state legislators and County Commissioners seats all up for grabs in November, it could be a whole new ball game next year, Munson said.

Gov. Parris Glendening, who had been supportive of state funding for a new stadium providing it has local support, is expected to face stiff competition in November.

If Glendening is re-elected and continues to support funding for a stadium, local support would remain a consideration, said Don Vandrey, the governor's spokesman.

"Certainly you want local money involved in any project, whether it's private or public isn't critical," Vandrey said. Opposition to the stadium by local officials would play a significant role in the governor's deliberations, he said.

Of the five county commissioners, only Ronald L. Bowers has filed to run for re-election. Commissioner R. Lee Downey announced Wednesday he won't seek re-election.

Bowers and Downey were the only two commissioners to vote for county involvement in the stadium project. Both opposed spending county money on the stadium itself, but were open to the possibility of using county funds for roads and sewers to serve a new West End Business Park, which would include a stadium.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said that after the November elections, city officials will know who to approach about stadium funding.

"I want to stress that I think it's very important that we keep the Suns here in town. We are only one of 150 cities that have a minor league team and that's something you don't give up without a fight," Bruchey said.

The site being considered for a stadium is a lot off Interstate 81, which would offer easy access.

"We're also looking to the county to help us develop a business park out there. If they actually treat us as if we're part of the county then they'll do this for us," Bruchey said.

City officials want businesses to sponsor different parts of the stadium, such as seating and the food court, Bruchey said.

Having in hand $2.5 million from businesses when approaching Washington County's state legislators could improve the chances of getting state funding, he said.

City officials have discussed providing $2.5 million for the stadium project.

Staff writer Steven T. Dennis contributed to this story.

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