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Saving the Suns: Consultant study shows task ahead

December 18, 1998

Pity poor Winston Blenckstone. Enticed to bring his baseball team here so Hagerstown wouldn't lack the recreational opportunity that minor league ball provides, he signed a 10-year lease providing the team with an escape clause if the Suns didn't meet certain attendance targets after five years.

The Suns didn't meet those targets, but local officials had no contingency plan for helping the team, and reacted as if they'd completely forgotten that the Suns' exit was a real possibility.

The only bright spots in the past year were Allegheny Power's pledge of $1 million toward a new stadium and County Commissioner Ron Bowers' proposal that the stadium be combined with a business park so that the county could put in one set of utilities, roads etc., to serve both industry and a stadium.

Unfortunately, Bowers' proposal didn't come until February, well into the 1998 General Assembly session, too late to sell it to the public or state lawmakers, who needed some election-year reassurance that the public wouldn't beat them up at the polls for backing the project.

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And so Blenckstone agreed to a one-year lease extension, hoping that more time and a study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority would convince local officials that they can back this project without getting burned.

That study was presented this past Tuesday, but though it concluded that a new facility would up attendance significantly, it didn't convince everyone, including one attendee at the press conference who referred to the Suns as a "foreign" team because they're affiliated with (though not owned by) the Toronto Blue Jays. Would those who feel this way please tell me how many free tickets you've received from the Orioles for being fans of their "American" product?

On to the facts: The study was done for the stadium authority by CSL International, whose representative, John T. Kaatz, conceded that of the 14 markets with South Atlantic League teams, only Salisbury is smaller. On CSL's demographic chart, Hagerstown ranked 13 out of 14 markets in terms of population, households and effective buying income.

And the study noted that "in terms of the number of corporations and branch offices, the Hagerstown market again ranked below the average market."

Another problem: The 25-mile radius from which the Suns are expected to draw most of their fans overlaps with the fan base of the Frederick Keys. CSL personnel said this would be offset by drawing more fans from areas north and south on Interstate 81, but Frederick County has the highest median income in the region, and thus the residents with the most disposable income.

Finally, as evidenced by comments from some who came to the CSL presentation, there's community opposition (how much is a question) to any plan that would commit taxpayer dollars to the project.

On the upside, the most conservative estimate has attendance increasing from its present average of 1,700 to at least 3,000 per game and $1 million in increased spending over and above current levels.

And CSL's preferred site - along Interstate 81 between Marshall Street and Salem Avenue - has possibilities, according to Kaatz, for development as a combination business park/ stadium site.

To get this show on the road, a couple of things need to happen, including the commitment of some additional private money. It's a $9 million project, so if you take Allegheny's $1 million, $250,000 from Blenckstone and the $4 or $5 million the stadium authority will provide, that would still leave a $3 or $4 million share for local government.

Hagerstown's property tax revenues are flat and the city posted a $200,000 deficit for the year ending June 30, and the county, well, the county still has a $50 million water/sewer debt to deal with.

Again, more private money is essential, though some of it might take the form of pledges by businesses to buy blocks of tickets each year.

Project promoters need to go back and look at Bowers' plan to combine stadium and business park. Putting the stadium in the same location as business sites would give the county board some political cover if it kicks in for utilities and the like. Some stadium facilities, like meeting rooms and restaurants, for example, could be do double duty, serving fans by night and firms in the business park by day.

As one participant in this past Tuesday's meeting pointed out, the Black Rock Golf Course faced a certain amount of opposition from citizens who feared it would be a money pit.

It has since gone on to be one of the county's best recreational facilities, returning some money to the county board every year. That happened, in part, because the county named some outspoken skeptics, like my one-time boss, the late Dick Kelly, to the board. If Blenckstone and company can convince those with strong doubts to work with them, this project will be much further along than it will be if the doubters are locked out of any meaningful role.

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