The city is committed to keeping professional baseball in its corporate limits, the Hagerstown City Council said Tuesday, hours after Hagerstown Suns co-owner Tony Dahbura warned the Washington County Board of Commissioners that the franchise could leave town.
Without commitment from the city and county to help pay for stadium renovations, Hagerstown might be on the verge of losing the Hagerstown Suns, Dahbura told the commissioners earlier in the day.
"As we have been quietly saying and warning, it was only a matter of time before other communities come around and attempt to take the franchise from Hagerstown," Dahbura said.
"That time has come. Hagerstown could be without professional baseball as early as 18 months from now if we stand by idly and let the process run its course."
No representative from the franchise addressed the city council Tuesday evening.
Asked for more details about the Suns potential departure after the commissioners meeting, Dahbura said he had nothing to add at this point.
Dahbura said the Suns' owners had been talking with the city and county for some time about a plan to remodel Municipal Stadium using funding from hotel-motel taxes that would be provided by the city and county, as well as funding from ticket and concession surcharges and other contributions from the Suns.
More than a decade ago, at the request of local officials, the county's hotel-motel tax was doubled to raise money for a stadium expected to cost $15 million. The city and county governments were to share in the stadium expenses.
That plan fizzled, and the franchise has changed hands three times since then.
Currently, Dahbura owns the team along with Bruce Quinn, Sheri Quinn and Mitesh Kothari. The city owns Municipal Stadium, which it leases to the Suns.
"I really just want to try to firm things up," Dahbura said, asking the commissioners for a funding commitment.
Bruce Quinn said later in a telephone interview that the Suns ownership is loyal to Hagerstown, has invested in Hagerstown and wants to stay in Hagerstown. But he said it is difficult to run a baseball business in the current stadium because of its age and structural problems.
The commissioners took no action on his request Tuesday.
However, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II urged the city council to make a statement to the Suns and to the public that it will work to keep professional baseball in Hagerstown with a $140,000 annually contribution.
The city's commitment could not revamp the aging stadium without county and state aid, as well as a contribution from the Suns, Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said.
The city should encourage the county to make good on its original intent of using the increased hotel-motel taxes to fund stadium improvements, Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood said.
City could swing it?
Bruchey said the city could come up with $140,000 a year without raising taxes.
Annually, the city commits $30,000 from its capital improvement program fund to stadium projects or improvements, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said.
By transferring some services that the city funds at the stadium to the Suns, the city can free up about $60,000, Bruchey said.
Add about $50,000 of the city's current hotel-motel funding — which is used for events like Western Maryland Blues Fest — and the $30,000 from the CIP, and the city can contribute $140,000 annually toward a bonded debt in a long-term commitment to the stadium, he said.
John Lestitian, director of community and economic development, assured the council that other funds could be found to replace that $50,000 for funding community affairs.
The city Tuesday also committed an additional $50,000 in the current fiscal year for improvements at the stadium. Most of its budgeted $30,000 went to repairing the light pole that fell this summer during a storm, Tissue said.
Municipal Stadium is more than 80 years old and doesn't meet current standards or capacity needs, Dahbura said.
In addition, the short-term lease between the Suns and the city "has made the Suns the No. 1 target for any community in the mid-Atlantic or the Southeastern United States looking to snare a minor league baseball team and move it to their own town," he said.
As part of the renovation plan, the Suns would commit to a long-term lease, Dahbura said.
He argued that renovating the stadium would help spark redevelopment in Hagerstown's East End, increase attendance and bring more money into the local economy.
Studies have shown a renovated stadium would boost the Suns' economic impact to $4 million or $5 million per year, compared to $3 million per year now, according to Dahbura.
But "swift, decisive and visionary action" by the county and city is needed to keep the Suns in Hagerstown, Dahbura said.
"Realistically, it's the bottom of the last inning, but we have the last at bat," he said.
Staff Writer Bob Parasiliti also contributed to this story.