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Stadium's fate still unclear after election

November 06, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

The fate of a new baseball stadium proposed for Hagerstown remains unclear despite four new Washington County Commissioners and a governor who supports stadium funding.

Of the next set of commissioners, Gregory I. Snook and William J. Wivell are opposed to county funding for a new stadium. John L. Schnebly and Bert L. Iseminger Jr. remain open-minded, but they have other priorities such as education and reducing the $53 million sewer debt.

That's not a stamp of approval on a $10 million stadium project, but it is a shift from having a majority of three - Snook, John S. Shank and James R. Wade - in steadfast opposition. Snook is the only commissioner returning.

Paul L. Swartz is the most enthusiastic supporter of a stadium among the commissioners-elect.

"This would give Hagerstown and Washington County a shot in the arm in attracting industries because, sad as it may seem, industries look at that first for their employees' entertainment, recreation," Swartz said. "That is sad because education should be first."

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Swartz has been studying the issue and thinks a new stadium along Interstate 81 would increase attendance for the Hagerstown Suns Class A minor league team up to 35 percent. He thinks the county could recoup its investment in two years.

Like many city, county and state politicians, Swartz is waiting for the results of a feasibility study on the stadium, which is expected in early December.

Allegheny Energy officials also are waiting for the results of the study to determine whether to extend an offer of $1 million for naming rights.

More private funding is something most local politicians are looking for in light of the county's sewer debt and the city's grim forecasts of tight fiscal years to come.

Considerably more private money and a favorable feasibility study could sway some politicians who oppose or are on the fence about supporting local funding.

City Councilman William M. Breichner still strongly supports a new stadium as does Councilman Alfred W. Boyer, if the study results favor one.

Council members Lewis C. Metzner and Susan Saum-Wicklein also await the study's results.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure still opposes funding a new stadium, saying the public support isn't there and local governments' finances are strained.

"I am still very happy with the stadium we have," McClure said.

Suns owner Winston Blenckstone wants a new stadium to boost attendance that has been eroding since 1992, the year before the team changed parent clubs from the Baltimore Orioles to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Attendance for the 1998 season was 109,932 people in 60 home games, down from last year's 115,011 in 66 games, according to the ball club. The club ranked ninth out of 14 clubs in attendance in the South Atlantic League this year.

However, average attendance per game went up from 1,743 to 1,832 people this year.

Suns spokesman Mike Heckman said the Suns will sign a $1 million, 10-year lease with the city for a new stadium. Under the current lease for Municipal Stadium on East Memorial Boulevard, the Suns only pay upkeep costs.

Blenckstone said he hopes the results of the feasibility study will be favorable and influence local politicians to present a funding plan to state legislators by January, when the Maryland General Assembly's legislative session begins.

"That's not my call. It's simply up to the community," he said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said whether he would sponsor a funding bill for the stadium depends on the feasibility study and available financing options.

A groundswell of financial support from private businesses would make it easier, Donoghue said.

If Gov. Parris N. Glendening is to support state funding for a stadium, there must be contributions from the city and county, said Michelle Byrnie, the governor's spokeswoman.

Local officials also must show Glendening the economic benefits of building a new stadium, she said.

Heckman said the Suns pump $4.6 million a year into the local economy and would hire at least 50 more employees at a new stadium. The club employs 75 to 100 part-time employees now.

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