Suns have plan for stadium makeover

Without county funding, team could leave city

December 17, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Hagerstown Suns co-owner Tony Dahbura provided this image for a concept plan for a remodeled Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown. The Suns' owners would like to see construction on a remodeled stadium begin at the close of the 2012 baseball season.
Submitted Photo

HAGERSTOWN — The owners of the Hagerstown Suns would like to see construction on a $9 million to $10 million Municipal Stadium remodeling project beginning at the close of the 2012 baseball season, team co-owner Tony Dahbura said.

Earlier this year, the owners paid a national sports facility architectural firm to create a concept for an "extreme makeover" of the stadium, Dahbura said. Now, they have concept drawings, price estimates and a proposed funding model — and, as of Tuesday, a pledge of $140,000 a year from the Hagerstown City Council.

The last missing piece is a funding commitment from Washington County, Dahbura said.

Dahbura owns the team along with Bruce Quinn, Sheri Quinn and Mitesh Kothari. The city owns Municipal Stadium, which it leases to the Suns.

The proposed funding model calls for $200,000 a year from the county in hotel-motel tax revenue, $140,000 a year from the city in hotel-motel tax revenue and other nongeneral-fund sources, and $200,000 to $230,000 a year from the Suns, Dahbura said.

Those payments would continue over the course of a 20- to 30-year bond, he said.

On Tuesday, Dahbura asked the county commissioners for a funding commitment, warning that without a remodeled stadium, Hagerstown could lose the Suns to another city as early as 18 months from now.

Leaving town?

In an interview Thursday, Dahbura said the Suns' owners have an active offer to move the Suns to another city.

Dahbura would not say what city, but Winchester, Va., has been floated in official circles as one that might be interested.

Asked if the offer was from Winchester, Dahbura said "no comment."

Winchester Mayor Elizabeth Minor referred questions about the city's interest in the Suns to the city's director of economic development, Jim Deskins.

"We're not in a position to comment," Deskins said.

Dahbura said the owners have received interest from multiple cities within the past six months.

"Even in this economy, there are at least 12 communities with ballpark projects, and probably more," he said. "Baseball teams are viewed as economic development engines by communities, as well as just, people want baseball in their community. So they're not making baseball teams, so they have to take them from somewhere."

Dahbura said the offers have been unsolicited. He and Kothari, in particular, do not want to see the team leave Hagerstown, but the two of them do not have a controlling interest in the team, he said.

The other owners are Bruce Quinn, chief operating officer and general manager of Polo Trace Golf Club in Delray Beach, Fla., and his sister, Sheri Quinn.

Dahbura said while the Quinns have a great interest in baseball, Dahbura and Kothari are "community-driven" and invested in the team because they want to keep professional baseball in Hagerstown.

Stadium vision

According to Dahbura, deficiencies in the roughly 80-year-old Municipal Stadium include safety issues, such as a hump in left field; drainage problems that create slippery conditions and bumps; a higher bleacher-to-seat ratio than most stadiums of its level; an inefficient concessions layout that leads to long lines, and not enough clubhouse or office space.

Improvements in recent decades have been aimed at merely keeping the park operational, Dahbura said.

"The city's invested, everybody's done what they can, but the reality is, best case, just to keep it as it is, it's a money pit," he said.

For the $9 to $10 million price tag, the owners could rebuild the stadium on its current site, eliminating those issues, or build a smaller, yet still adequate stadium on another site, Dahbura said.

"If at all possible, we would like to be in the East End of Hagerstown, simply because we want to help the city" revitalize that area, Dahbura said.

The "extreme makeover" concept created this year includes a two-tiered, covered seating area, more efficient concessions, a larger clubhouse, more seats as opposed to bleachers, improved field grading and more Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

To improve parking if the stadium stayed at its current location, Dahbura said "it's too early to provide an exact plan, but there are several possibilities, including city-owned property nearby."

The City Light Department owns several acres on Eastern Boulevard along Antietam Creek that are a possibility for expanded stadium parking, though no formal discussions have been held, Dahbura said.

Commissioners weigh in

When Dahbura asked the commissioners for a funding commitment during the "citizens' participation" portion of their meeting Tuesday, the commissioners offered no response.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said Friday in a phone interview. "I felt really bad that we could not step up as a board of county commissioners and make a commitment right then and there."

Callaham said she has long been an advocate for refurbishing the stadium and believes it is a "perfect match" for the use of hotel-motel tax revenue.

However, she said the commissioners have not received a proposal in writing.

"I'm a stickler for plans and data, so I really can't give you a definitive answer on an amount because we have not had a plan submitted to us that has gone through our financial officer and administration," she said. "Those are the things that we base our votes on."

Commissioners Terry Baker, Jeffrey A. Cline and William B. McKinley also said they would need to review a formal proposal before deciding whether to commit funds. Commissioner John F. Barr did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

"I would say hotel-motel money is designed for economic development, and we need to list our priorities and (decide) where on our list would the stadium be," Cline said. To do so, the commissioners would need to see estimates on paper of the economic impact a stadium renovation would have on the surrounding area, he said.

"At this point, I couldn't commit $200,000 a year to it," McKinley said, though he is "very much in favor of all of us doing everything we can to save that team" and is "willing to continue to negotiate and talk."

Dahbura said the $200,000 figure was based on "what the county staff has told us is a comfortable amount for them to contribute toward funding."

Based on current hotel-motel tax revenue levels, $200,000 represents about half of the hotel-motel tax revenue available for the county to distribute to individual groups and projects each year. Other portions go to municipalities and to the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said county staff has not recommended that amount.

"(Dahbura) sat down with county staff and worked on some different scenarios that included $200,000 a year that he proposed, but there's been no recommendation or full vetting of any proposal at this point," Murray said Friday.

Dahbura said the city and the Suns are planning to ask the commissioners for a meeting to be held in January to align their commitments.

State support possible

While the proposed funding model includes only county, city and Suns funding, state support is another possibility and would reduce the amount the other funders would need to pay, Dahbura said.

On Wednesday, Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said there have been informal talks in Annapolis about possible state money for Municipal Stadium improvements.

Serafini, the Washington County delegation chairman, said he has discussed the project with House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Gov. Martin O'Malley also has been told, Serafini said.

But nothing will happen at the state level until local funding plans are firm, he said.

"Clearly, it's got to be driven by the city and county first ... We cannot take anything down (to Annapolis) until there's absolute solidarity" from local governments, he said.

If any state money goes to the project, it might come through the Maryland Stadium Authority or the state's capital budget, Serafini said.

Dahbura said the state has, over the years, supported sports facilities throughout the state, though not yet in Western Maryland.

"Public-private partnerships for sports facilities have really been the norm in our country, and not doing that puts our community in an uncompetitive situation," Dahbura said.

In addition, public support for the stadium helps keep ticket prices affordable, he said.

Dahbura stressed that the proposed public funding source, hotel-motel tax revenue, comes from a small surcharge on overnight stays and therefore is paid mostly by out-of-town visitors, not county taxpayers.

Even nonbaseball fans should support stadium improvements and keeping professional baseball in Hagerstown because of the impact visiting teams and fans have on area hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses, Dahbura argued.

"If you live here, you're probably impacted in a positive way by baseball, whether you realize it or not, directly or indirectly," he said.

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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