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Suns set deadline for stadium funding plan

March 14, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Hagerstown Suns owner Winston Blenckstone issued an ultimatum Tuesday, saying he will try to sell the team if a formal funding plan for a new stadium is not approved by April 7.

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Should the Suns be sold, it would be up to the new owners whether to keep the team in Hagerstown or move it, Blenckstone said.

"Our fans must be told the truth," he said.

"Stadium is not a dirty word, and a new stadium in our community means another generation of youngsters will grow up in Hagerstown with a baseball team to embrace."

During a morning press conference in downtown Hagerstown, Blenckstone said he wants to keep the Suns in the city, but tied the team's fate to the Hagerstown Roundhouse and Sports Complex, a proposed stadium and railroad museum.

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"Our hope is that our fans will not lose their team," he said.

Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, who attended the conference to support Blenckstone, said the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly needs to be nudged off center.

"I think we're doing the right thing keeping this on track," Bruchey said. Setting a deadline might help, he added. "I think it's worth a shot."

Blenckstone said a new stadium would double attendance and assure the Suns continue to bring $4 million into the local economy each year and fill hotel rooms.

Blenckstone said he is encouraged by city and county government plans to contribute funds toward the estimated $12 million to $15 million project.

"We're close," he said. "Close as we have ever been."

He called on Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening for state funds, noting that several stadiums have been built recently in Maryland. "All the money seems to be going to the rest of the state," Blenckstone said.

Blenckstone has said the Suns will remain in Hagerstown through the coming baseball season.

If a new stadium were built, he would sign a 15-year lease to use the new facility, Blenckstone said. He pledged to contribute to stadium maintenance and donate money for luxury suites, but those details have not been formalized.

Asked if he would make a contribution, Blenckstone said he was not aware of a personal donation above the lease being required. "I'll do what's reasonable," he said.

Blenckstone did not recommend a site for the new complex, plans for which have been developed by a task force of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Whatever site works out would be acceptable, he said.

The Suns play at the city-owned Municipal Stadium, which dates back to 1931. Blenckstone said that stadium has served the community well but is old, poorly attended and needs upgrades.

"We believe a new stadium could be a source of pride to even those who do not attend games," he said. "Even the naysayers are going to say, 'what a beautiful facility.'"

Construction of the new stadium would be paid for with government and private funds, but a concrete funding plan has not been developed.

The Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill to raise the county hotel-motel tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, and the County Commissioners could use some of the proceeds to contribute to a stadium complex.

How to pay for the stadium remains a contentious issue, and Blenckstone asked the community to unite behind the cause.

"I see no reason to divide this community any more than it has been," he said. "We view this time between now and April as a perfect opportunity to come together."

The Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, are part of the South Atlantic League. Blenckstone said the league will expand in 2001, adding teams in Lexington, Ky., and Montgomery, Ala.

Blenckstone said he has not specifically spoken to people in other cities about selling the Suns, but his involvement in the league keeps him aware of the potential. He called the situation fragile but expressed hope the team would remain in Hagerstown.

If it comes down to selling the team, Blenckstone said a local group could step up and buy the Suns. But it would be more likely that an outside group would buy the team with a specific plan to move it, he said.

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