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Stadium seems like a reasonable investment

January 15, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

The biggest favor minor-league baseball supporters could do for themselves is to stop talking about stadiums as an engine for economic development. That’s like trying to sell a Land Rover based on its gas mileage.

It’s not just baseball that does this, obviously. Everything today is being touted as a “jobs creator,” most amusingly the ill-fated merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. For the last time that a merger of two corporate behemoths created jobs instead of destroying them, you’d probably have to go back to the Guilded Age.

The next thing baseball supporters might consider is to stop placing the weight of city viability on the stadium’s shoulders. In a time when Moses himself couldn’t part the inner-city decay, asking the Hagerstown Suns, or whoever might take their place, to be a revitalization tool that will spur a wildfire of development throughout the East End is asking a bit much.

And as long as we’re on a roll, let’s stop playing with numbers. A new or improved stadium might add a handful of people to the average attendance when the dust settles, but it is a disservice to suggest that it would be packed every night. Nor is a stadium makeover likely to make us a rabid minor league baseball town. We’re not Durham.

If we strip away all the starry-eyed projections and inflated numbers, we’re left with this:

The Hagerstown Suns are a very nice community asset that adds to the local quality of life. Professional baseball fills a few hotel rooms and gives our hotel-motel tax revenue something of a boost. The franchise provides a handful of seasonal, mostly part-time, jobs.

It brings a fair scattering of tourists to Hagerstown, those mostly being traveling baseball freaks or Washington Nationals fans who want to spend an evening evaluating the talent out on the farm.

The Suns, on any given night, provide entertainment for a couple thousand people, and your guess is as good as mine, but I’d say there’s a pool of maybe 10,000 people locally who can be counted on to attend several games or more a year.

The players also work with school children, and in a community that so frequently bemoans the idea that there’s nothing in Hagerstown for kids to do — well, yes there is.

So for the city, county and state, the question is this: Based strictly on what the Suns are, and not on what we might wish them to be, what is it worth to keep a team around?

First, the city and county have thrown a lot more in tax credits alone toward private companies that have delivered a lot less. The old pulp plant right across the street is a fine example. We get down on our knees, beg and plead, and offer the moon and stars to businesses that might promise us six employees and might be gone within six months.

The Suns have been a steady, dependable business in this community for decades. The stadium (with the team as primary beneficiary) has been improved with tax dollars, but I dare say that this money benefits a far broader swath of the public than, say, the County Commuter, or any other agency that provides services that are important to a relative few.

Very few government programs, in fact, benefit everyone, nor should we expect them to.

No one this side of Ron Paul would suggest the county bus service is a bad thing, even though the buses are seldom filled. I see the same old faces on county tennis courts, but few serious individuals would say it was a mistake to build them. When the dam at Devil’s Backbone began to crumble, we decided that the park impoundment is a valuable part of our community. If baseball doesn’t benefit everyone in the county, so what?

Sports stadiums are a convenient whipping boy for agitated taxpayers, and unfortunately this has been more the fault of the team owners than the taxpayers themselves. But most of the unwillingness to support the Suns, I would think, is misdirected anger at the billionaire owners of major city franchises.

Yes, the Suns various owners through the years have threatened to leave town (and one actually did), but heavens, what business hasn’t made similar threats when it thinks there is an advantage to be won? Anyone remember Fairchild?

We’re a long way from the glory days of the Suns, when it was a Double-A Orioles affiliate. But the community has maintained its baseball awareness, as the crowds that came out to see Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper will attest. With a host of budding stars, the Nationals might be poised to become the new Orioles in the community’s consciousness, and a Nationals franchise might not be a bad bandwagon for the city and county to hitch their wagons to.

But again, that’s speculation. Meanwhile, based entirely on what we know as fact, outlined in the most understated way, the stadium still seems like a reasonable investment on which to spend a reasonable amount of money.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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