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Stadium backers should take McClure's questions seriously

August 04, 2000

Stadium backers should take McClure's questions seriously



This week Councilman Wally McClure, the leading political opponent to a new minor league baseball stadium in Hagerstown, proposed a "Stadium Summit" with supporters of the project, at which time he wants to outline a list of conditions that, if answered to his satisfaction, may dissolve some of his steadfast opposition.

I don't know whether Sitting Bull ever offered General Custer the opportunity for a "Prairie Summit" prior to Little Bighorn, but had he, old Yellow Hair would have been wise to listen up then. And stadium supporters would be wise to hear McClure out now.

For better or worse, fairly or unfairly, McClure's name will always be attached to the fate of baseball in Hagerstown. If we lose our long tradition of professional baseball, McClure will be remembered as the reason why.

Publicly, McClure says he can live with that. But what man wants to be remembered 50 years hence for tearing something down rather than building something up? No politician ever had a vacant lot named after him, which is what Municipal Stadium is destined to become if the Suns leave town.

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If McClure has softened a bit recently in his opposition, I'd suspect this is the reason why. All the vehement, anti-stadium voices may sound good in his ear today, but what about years from now when those voices have died away and the long-remembered legacy of killing the local chapter of our national pastime is all that remains, stuck to the McClure name like dryer socks on a silk cocktail dress?

No doubt, stadium supporters will see this Stadium Summit as a stall tactic or a ploy for McClure to get himself off the hook. He makes it look as if he's shooting for compromise, while hoping that next year's elected council will be packed with stadium opponents, making his opposition moot.

Or maybe one or two of his conditions are actually poison pills that, if conceded to, will effectively doom the project.

But a review of McClure's conditions does not reflect a gaggle of crazy shots aimed at plugging the stadium for good; they are legitimate questions that ought to be answered not just for the satisfaction of McClure, but to ensure the city isn't getting in over its head.

At least three of McClure's conditions sensibly are targeted toward guaranteeing that if there is a stadium there will be a team to play in it, at least until it's paid off.

The memories of Peter Kirk wrenching the Orioles-affiliated Suns from Hagerstown a decade ago are fresh enough that we remember how rapidly a minor league team can leave town. Cities across the country are thirsting for minor league ball, and will happily dangle incentives to pluck a team from its current digs.

Everyone, not just McClure, should realize what a disaster it would be to have a 20-year stadium payment and no team. A guarantee of Suns longevity is not too much to ask.

McClure also is asking for the Suns to consider a change in affiliation, and here he may be closer to the thinking of Suns ownership than he realizes.

For 10 years now we've denied it, but the plain truth is that affiliation matters. Losing the Orioles pedigree was bad and picking up Toronto - foreigners, for heaven's sake - was, in this community's eyes, equally bad.

There's a lot of behind-the-scenes baseball intrigue at the minor league level, but if the owners could make the switch to a Philadelphia or Pittsburgh affiliation, I'm guessing they would happily do so. And with ongoing league realignments, this possibility isn't terribly far-fetched.

Perhaps the condition that stadium supporters least want to hear, is McClure's proposal to recrunch the numbers based on lower attendance projections.

Current revenue calculations are based on an attendance average of 3,000 fans a game. That figure is based on historic patterns recorded at other, similar-sized communities where new stadiums have been built.

But Washington County isn't an "other community." People will spend thousands of dollars a year on tiny slips of paper and colored cardboard scratchables (grumbling all the while about how taxes are preventing them being able to pay the light bill on time) but when it comes to shelling out $5 for live entertainment, their wallets shut tighter than a box turtle.

What would be the harm in calculating a worst-case scenario? Let's not have another ice rink, where overly optimistic projections had people talking about buyilding two, when in fact they couldn't fully book one.

It's more than fair to ask what happens if the stadium only attracts 2,500. How would the books be balanced? What would it cost, and who would pay?

All this might be a futile effort. Perhaps, as McClure suggests, the next council will vote down the project and all the studies and plans and legislation and summits of the past five years will turn out to have been a waste of time.

But as long as the project has a chance, slim as it may be, it's worth proceeding and planning with care. McClure's concerns seem genuine and legitimate, and if a summit would get clear answers before the public once and for all, it will be well worth the effort.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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