WINCHESTER, VA. — Citing concerns about economic risks and alcohol, the Winchester City Council Tuesday night unanimously rejected a proposal to transfer park land to an economic development agency for a proposed stadium project to bring the Hagerstown Suns to the town.
Councilman John Tagnesi said previously that if the council did not transfer the land it would kill the plan because there is no other location for the Winchester area project.
An overflow crowd turned out at the council chambers to watch the 8-0 vote and hear an overwhelming number of speakers object to the proposal. Nearly 20 people who testified raised concerns about the project.
The council was considering a proposal to transfer about 7.9 acres in Jim Barnett Park to the Winchester Economic Development Authority, which would have built a ballpark on the site.
Speakers and council members had reservations about using part of the park for a stadium, and were worried about traffic generated by the stadium and alcohol use where youths would be. Others said they were worried about economic risks associated with the project, noting that if a baseball team wants a new stadium, it should take the risk.
Councilman John A. Willingham, who is a banker, said he tried to “de-risk” the project the best he could but ended up having to vote against it.
Resident James L. Smith said there are people in Winchester who don’t have a yard and “don’t have a country club to go to. They go to their sacred place, the park.”
Before the meeting, project opponents handed out baseball-shaped stickers that read: “No Ball Park.” Many spectators wore the stickers.
Councilman John W. Hill said Winchester needs baseball. But Hill said he works with kids who are troubled by substance abuse and sees how readily they can access those substances.
Hill said he was worried about having alcohol in the park with the stadium there.
“Its about the things that people cherish in life. It’s not always about money,” he said.
The council’s decision on a stadium land transfer will be watched carefully by Washington County officials considering their own bid to keep the Suns.
Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said Monday he is trying to negotiate a two-year lease extension for the Suns to continue playing at Municipal Stadium, but the issue did not come up during a council work session Tuesday afternoon.
After the meeting, Bruchey said the proposed lease would be discussed in executive session with the five-member council. He declined further comment.
Bruce Quinn, majority owner of the Suns, remained upbeat despite Tuesday night’s vote in Winchester.
“We are still very optimistic that the Suns will either be playing in a new Winchester stadium for the 2013 season or sign a lease extension with the City of Hagerstown thus giving the City, County and State time to firm up the proposed Downtown stadium project for the 2015 season,” Quinn said in an email.
“In both scenarios the Suns have agreed to a base rent and/or revenue share split that will pay down the largest portion of the debt service needed to fund the building of a new stadium.
“We are excited on the progress we have made towards a new home and want to thank our Loyal fans, both communities, Jim Deskins and Mayor Bob Bruchey for the support that we have recieved,” the email said.
The potential lease with Hagerstown could include a possible longer extension if certain actions toward getting a new stadium are met in a specified timeline, Hagerstown Councilwoman Ashley Haywood has said. That longer extension would be similar to one Winchester officials were considering if they had a new stadium built for the Suns, she said.
At his State of the City Address on March 6, Bruchey displayed a site concept rendering of a ballpark that showed it occupying the area of The Herald-Mail Co. parking lot off Summit Avenue, the Baltimore Street Station Car Wash, the county office building on Baltimore Street and a Laundromat on Summit Avenue.
The concept also included a parking deck on the north side of West Antietam Street.
Staff Writer C.J. Lovelace contributed to this story.