Polled on the eve of a critical vote, many of Winchester, Va.’s city councilmembers expressed serious reservations about a proposed stadium project to bring the Hagerstown Suns to Winchester.
Their decision Tuesday on a stadium land transfer will be watched carefully by Washington County officials considering their own bid to keep the Suns, because if the Winchester land transfer falls through, the Virginia city’s deal will be on the verge of striking out.
None of the Winchester councilmembers reached by phone Monday would say which way they would vote, but asked about their reasoning on the issue, at least four stressed the widespread opposition to the proposed site in Jim Barnett Park.
The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to convey about 7.9 acres in the park’s northeastern corner to the Winchester Economic Development Authority, which would build a ballpark on the site.
A recent resignation has left the Winchester City Council with eight members. If all of them vote, five yes votes would be needed for the land transfer to move forward.
If the land transfer is not approved, Winchester’s hope of landing the Suns looks slim, some councilmembers said.
“A vote tomorrow night to not give the land to the EDA, that kills it, because there’s no other location,” Councilman John Tagnesi said Monday.
“As I understand it, the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the EDA and the Hagerstown Suns doesn’t leave that much of an open door there,” said Councilman Milt McInturff. “It might be a crack.”
In a January letter of intent, Hagerstown Baseball LLC, the owner of the Suns, agreed to move the team to a newly constructed stadium in Winchester, provided a list of conditions — including the approval of stadium funding by the City of Winchester — are met by April 17.
McInturff said if the land transfer were turned down Tuesday, the EDA would have to find another piece of property suitable to all parties and strike an 11th-hour deal to fulfill its agreement with the Suns to build a stadium.
“I guess that’s always a possibility, but ... if that’s the way the council votes and (the EDA) goes back to the drawing board, that’s not going to happen,” McInturff said.
McInturff and Tagnesi were among five of the eight Winchester councilmembers who spoke to The Herald-Mail Monday about their positions on a stadium in Jim Barnett Park.
• Councilman Evan H. Clark said he has “tried to listen to all sides” and hadn’t made a final decision.
“I think that there are positive and negative aspects of the potential to bring baseball to Winchester,” Clark said. “I think that it definitely could bring really good business to the city, and it would be a tourist attraction and definitely a destination activity for people.”
However, Clark said citizens had relayed “a good number of concerns with the traffic and the land transfer itself and the possibility of having alcohol in the park.”
He said the city has proposed a tax increase and, although the stadium would not be funded through tax dollars, “politically it’s difficult to do both (a tax increase and an unpopular stadium project) at the same time.”
Clark said his preference would be for the team’s owners or another group of investors to buy and donate land elsewhere in Winchester for a stadium — in which case, Clark said, he would “happily” support the city’s participation in building a stadium on land that was not subject to controversy about noise, traffic problems and alcohol use in the park.
• McInturff said attracting a minor-league baseball team is worth considering for its potential economic development benefits, but he “wrestles with” the proposed site because its location amid park land and residential areas would not allow for commercial growth adjacent to the stadium.
“I’d want to have it in an area where there could be other economic development around it,” McInturff said.
He described himself as “on the fence,” but said, “I can’t think of anything drastic happening that’s going to make me change my mind. I’m just concerned about the location.”
• Mayor Elizabeth Minor said the main issue she is taking into consideration in deciding which way to vote is “where it would be built in the park, and of course the traffic.”
Minor said public opinion is very much against building a stadium in the park.
“I’ve heard from probably more (citizens) on this than anything that has come before council,” she said.
• Tagnesi said he thinks the issue has been too rushed.
“I’m a retired Air Force colonel,” he said. “When we plan a mission in the Air Force, you plan it to the nth degree and you have lots of time. You do it well in advance. You don’t rush through the planning.”
This is the second time in three years the issue of conveying land in Jim Barnett Park for another use has been discussed, Tagnesi said. The last time, a proposal to lease a couple of acres for a children’s museum, garnered a similar amount of public opposition, he said.
“We anticipate tomorrow night there will be another big crowd, and there won’t be any proponents,” he said Monday. “There will only be opponents.”
• Councilman John A. Willingham said he had not made up his mind.
“I’ll be considering the location, citizens’ comments, potentially the current state of the economics of the deal; there could be a whole host of things,” he said.
Council President Jeffrey Buettner and councilmembers John W. Hill and Les Veach did not return calls seeking comment.
Buettner was quoted by the Winchester Star on Saturday as saying he had not made up his mind, but felt some of the public opposition was to the idea of change in general.
“The unfortunate thing is Winchester is going to change,” the Star quoted Buettner as saying. “...We can choose to influence that direction or we can let that direction choose itself, and I would like to pick where we are going.”
Tuesday’s Winchester City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the council chambers at Rouss City Hall at 15 N. Cameron St. in Winchester.