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Oppose stadium if you must, but don't demonize owners

June 16, 2000

David Blenckstone's pronouncement last week that his family will sell the Hagerstown Suns if a new-stadium issue is placed on the ballot was predictably greeted with gleeful howls of righteous indignation.

The faction of stadium opponents who for months, if not years, have wallowed in disinformation campaigns against the stadium and personal smear tactics against the Blenckstones finally saw an opportunity to grab for a sliver of high ground.

Here was Blenckstone, threatening the community. Here he was, bullying the populace, trying to ram through a stadium project that is unpopular with the area's louder residents who have time on their hands.

So a cascade of boos worthy of John Rocker has once again rained down on the Blenckstones and the stadium project seems all but doomed.

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You can legitimately feel one way or the other about the stadium. There are good reasons to build it or not build it. The debate about the stadium itself is healthy.

But the people who would impugn the integrity of the Blenckstones should be ashamed.

Remember, Winston Blenckstone and his Toronto Blue Jays affiliate wanted Hagerstown when no one else did. We had just been deserted by Peter Kirk and the Baltimore Orioles, who couldn't get out of town fast enough when brighter opportunity arose.

The Blenckstones came here because they liked the area and they've stayed for the same reason. For a decade they have provided us with high-quality, professional baseball at very little profit to themselves outside of the love they get for the game.

If the Blenckstones want money, all they have to do is sell the team, which they could do in a heartbeat. If they want a new stadium they can have one, also in a heartbeat. Dozens of communities across the nation with more vision than our own would happily build a stadium to attract professional ball. The Blenckstones don't want a new stadium. They want a new stadium in Hagerstown. They love the area and they love baseball.

Why does this make them villains?

David Blenckstone is taking substantial heat for his comments about selling the team if the stadium goes to the ballot box, but he is absolutely right. Why go to the expense and turmoil of an election that is bound to lose?

Stadium supporters who believe the stadium referendum would pass if the public has all the facts may technically be correct - but that "if" is an impossibility. At a recent County Commissioners' public budget hearing it was striking how many people marched to the podium and demanded the commissioners use any property and income tax increase for schools, not the stadium.

There were two problems with that, the largest being that it's the City of Hagerstown that's building the stadium, not Washington County. Citizens were barking up the wrong budget. The second problem was that the county's contribution to the stadium effort would come from the hotel/motel tax, not from any property- or income-tax dollars.

These basic and sizable mistakes discourage any rational person from believing that voters will be well-informed about the project. Supporters believe they can turn the tide with a public education campaign.

Education? Hagerstown?

Moving on, it is notable that a hefty constituency for the stadium - kids - would not be able to vote. It's arguable that wise and sober adults will go to the polls and oppose the stadium to protect future generations from debt. I think it's far more likely that in 20 years today's youngsters will shake their heads that the voters of 2000 were so shortsighted as to let professional baseball get away.

Finally, in any election the Blenckstones would effectively be paying for the sins of the Art Modells and Peter Angeloses of the world. There's widespread and deep frustration - and rightly so - about publicly funded big-city stadiums to put more millions of dollars in the pockets of multimillionaires.

But this is minor league ball. Players earn about as much as warehouse employees at Staples. Even if a new stadium is built, profits would be measured in thousands of dollars, not millions. The Blenckstones are not moguls; they run a business that in terms of size and profit would likely rank in the lower half of all those in Washington County.

What's disheartening is that all this chaff would have to be swept away before the real issues could logically be discussed, those being: 1. Will revenue be sufficient to pay the tab without increasing annual bites out of the general fund? Will a new stadium draw sufficient crowds? Is the private funding mechanism solid?

But these are hard questions that require hard thought. When people can't grasp an issue or the facts are not in their favor they generally turn to smear tactics. (People incapable of understanding national health care policy, for instance, leveled their guns at the easy target of Hillary Clinton).

But for five years now, the Blenckstones have been more than patient. They've waited and waited, as every six months or so they were promised an answer on the stadium from local government, an answer that never came. They've been shortchanged by local revenue/attendance guarantees, they've been flat-out lied to by politicians and they've had to endure wave after wave of ignorance, including the woman who once bizarrely accused them of opening our door to foreign infiltration since the Suns are affiliated with Toronto. Through it all, they have turned the other cheek, long after any other owner would have quit this crazy Popsicle stand.

The Blenckstones are good people. It's possible to dislike the stadium and still feel admiration for this family, which has been so devoted to the community despite our bad manners.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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