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Suns' owner says 'No stadium, no baseball'

April 11, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Another legislative session ends tonight, marking another year with no money in the budget for a new baseball stadium in Washington County, and Hagerstown Suns owner Winston Blenckstone says he can see the handwriting on the wall.

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"We're assuming it ain't going to be done," Blenckstone said. "We've been working on this since January 1996, and unfortunately the politicians decide where baseball goes and doesn't go."

Blenckstone said unless attitudes change and a new baseball stadium is built, minor league baseball will leave the county within five years.

Without a new ballpark to replace Hagerstown's 68-year-old Municipal Stadium, Blenckstone said he will probably sell the franchise.

Blenckstone says Municipal Stadium has outlived its usefulness.

Problems with the ballpark include inadequate parking, flooding, a small hill in the outfield, and sagging attendance. Those problems wouldn't exist in a new stadium that could be a major attraction for residents of the Tri-State area, he said.

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Currently, Blenckstone has a year-to-year lease on the stadium, which would allow the team to leave after this season, something Blenckstone said "people should really be worried about."

"Next year is up in the air right now," he said.

Blenckstone said he has had "preliminary discussions" with possible buyers.

He wouldn't give details but said there are three or four cities watching the situation in Hagerstown because they would want to lure the franchise to them. He said the team is probably worth about $2 million to $4 million.

But for now, Blenckstone said he's focused on the day-to-day operation of the club, leaving the future of minor league baseball in Hagerstown in limbo.

The Hagerstown Suns, a Class-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, began the 1999 season last Thursday playing on the road. The team returns for its home opener on Friday.

Although pessimistic, Blenckstone said he is not completely giving up hope on receiving government support for a new stadium.

Other supporters of a new stadium remain more optimistic.

Supporters include Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, City Councilman Alfred W. Boyer and Washington County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz, who have joined with the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce to develop a plan for a new stadium.

Under the direction of the mayor, Hagerstown city staff produced a report outlining a funding plan for a $14.5 million stadium and business park that would be built near the intersection of Interstate 81 and Salem Avenue. The cost of the project is now projected to be about $15 million.

Swartz said a Chamber of Commerce stadium committee is looking at four possible sites to build a new stadium, including the originally proposed site, land across Salem Avenue from that site, Allegheny Power's Friendship Technology Park and at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Route 40.

So far, however, stadium supporters have been unable to convince enough politicians to support the project.

Members of the Washington County Delegation to the General Assembly say there hasn't been enough community support to justify seeking state money for a stadium, said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

Neither the Hagerstown City Council nor the new County Commissioners - four new members took office in December - have voted on funding a new stadium.

Three of the five County Commissioners haven't come out for or against funding a stadium and are awaiting a report on the proposed business park.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF, is expected to present a report on the need for a new business park to a joint meeting of the City Council and the commissioners on April 20.

Swartz, the only commissioner to come out strongly in favor of a new stadium, said he still thinks one will be built within two years.

"Winston's been a pessimist from the beginning because he's been through this for so long. But my gut feeling is yes. I think it will happen," Swartz said.

--Staff writer Laura Ernde contributed to this article.

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