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Local officials have mixed reactions to Va. town's baseball stadium plan

January 23, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium is seen from the first-base side.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Local officials had mixed reactions Monday to news that a group in Winchester, Va. — the community reportedly wooing the Hagerstown Suns — is considering building a $15 million baseball stadium.

Some called for the Hagerstown community to step up its efforts to convince the team to stay, while others were reluctant to go on the defensive with no guarantees from the Suns.

“I want the Suns to stay in Hagerstown, but I don’t want the taxpayers to face an unfair burden of debt service if the Suns aren’t willing to commit to staying in Hagerstown,” Hagerstown City Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood said.

Tony Dahbura, who owns a small share of the team, led a push in December for local officials to commit to helping fund a $9 million to $10 million renovation of the outdated Hagerstown Municipal Stadium in exchange for a long-term lease commitment from the Suns. The city council agreed then to contribute $140,000 a year toward the project, but the Board of County Commissioners would not agree to a county funding commitment. Dahbura said the project would require $200,000 a year from the county in hotel-motel tax revenue.

Washington County Commissioners John F. Barr and Ruth Anne Callaham said Monday that they had heard the Suns were talking to Winchester and that they believed Winchester’s announcement was reason for Washington County to step up its consideration of a stadium investment.

“I don’t think it’s too late,” Barr said. “I think obviously competition’s good, and we’re going to have to pull more resources and more horsepower together.”

Barr said he was not ready to commit county funding to a stadium project, but was “certainly interested in pursuing our options.”

Callaham called for the local community to show “the same kind of political will” as Winchester.

“There are no dummies down there, and they would not have made this announcement if they did not believe that a modern stadium in their community was a good investment, and I hope it works for them,” Callaham said. “I certainly want to retain the Suns here, and I hope our community can have the same kind of vision.”

Callaham, too, said she would still want to see a thorough analysis before committing to stadium improvements.

“Trying to just chase another community into something is not what we do,” she said. “We look at the data, we give it a good analysis and a thought-out process, and then we decide.”

Washington County Commissioners William B. McKinley and Terry Baker were less enthusiastic about pursuing a stadium renovation project in an attempt to keep the Suns.

“If it is the Suns (that Winchester is talking to) and they have the property, it seems like it’s fairly close to a done deal,” McKinley said. “If that is the case, obviously we would not invest anything into the Suns at this point.”

Baker said unless the Suns or the city present the county with a concrete proposal and data to support it, there is nothing for the county to do.

Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said he would be willing to listen to a detailed proposal, but it seems like the “wheels are already in motion” for the Suns to move to Winchester.

“It looks like it’s a very volatile industry, and whoever has the biggest and best stadium gets the team,” he said.

Cline said even if the Suns left and Hagerstown got a new baseball team, “it makes me wonder if you build a stadium or improve an existing one, would some other city come in and steal them, too?”

On the Hagerstown City Council, Martin E. Brubaker and William Breichner called on the county and state to step forward to help fund a stadium project. Both said they thought if the county and state were to help, it wasn’t too late to convince the Suns to stay.

“I think (a stadium renovation) would be a good project, but there’s no way we can put it all on the back of city taxpayers,” Brubaker said. “It seems to me the commissioners could find a way to come forward with sums out of the hotel-motel tax that would help leverage a larger sum. After all, hotel-motel (tax revenue) is one of the major beneficiaries of Suns baseball.”

Breichner said the city is willing to step forward and could probably even contribute more than it has put on the table so far, but he feels the county and state have an obligation to step forward with help.

Haywood, on the other hand, said she was disappointed with the way the city had been put on the defensive by the Suns.

“The Suns have offered us a renovation proposal but they haven’t offered us a business plan for success,” she said. “We’ve been hedging our bets on the stadium being the impetus for them to stay, but we’ve received no confidence from them that that is the case, so we need to switch our perspective a little and plan for the future, whether or not the Suns are going to be here.”

“We need to shift away from building the stadium for the Suns and, rather, if we do choose to build a stadium, build a stadium that will benefit the community in the amenities that it offers, whether or not the Suns stay,” she said.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and council members Lewis C. Metzner and Forrest Easton did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

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