Stadium no guarantee Suns will stay in Hagerstown

Majority owner says site, amenities are two top factors in choosing between Hagerstown and Winchester

May 05, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Hagerstown Suns Head Groundskeeper Brian Saddler trims outfield grass Friday morning at Municipal Stadium. He is in his first year of grooming the Suns field.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Although Hagerstown and Washington County took a big step toward funding construction of a multiuse stadium last week, some Hagerstown City Council members say there are details that must be worked out before the facility can become a reality.

And there is as yet no guarantee the Hagerstown Suns will remain in Hagerstown even if stadium plans move forward.

Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn said Thursday he is in the “preliminary stages” of talks with officials from both Hagerstown and Winchester, Va., which has been courting the team.

Quinn said where the team plays in the future comes down to a “business decision” aimed at keeping the Suns’ affiliation with the Washington Nationals.

The Major League Baseball team extended its player development contracts with its four other farm teams this spring, leaving the Nationals’ pact with the Suns to expire at the end of 2012.

In delaying the signing, the Nationals sent Quinn a letter informing him of upgrades required to bring Municipal Stadium, which opened in the 1930s, to the level at which it could house an affiliated team. Two of the major problems for compliance are the playing surface and the clubhouse facilities, Quinn said in February.

“We owe it to Hagerstown residents and our fan base” to stay in Hagerstown, Quinn said.

At the same time, he said, “We want to put this to bed as quickly as possible.”

A site for a stadium and certain amenities are two top factors to be considered when choosing between Hagerstown and Winchester, Quinn said.

Two amenities that are a priority for him in Hagerstown, Quinn said, are a stadium club with premium seating and a dining facility for fans, and an arcade on the concourse for children and families.

“That’s very important,” Quinn said.

The city needs to determine exactly where Quinn’s intentions lie, Hagerstown Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said last week.

“That’s a concern that, I think, we all collectively have and we’re going to be addressing in the very near future now that we have the city and county budgeting to fund $16 million,” he said.

Figuring the funding

In a joint meeting last Tuesday, the Washington County Commissioners and Hagerstown City Council agreed on a potential funding plan to build the $30 million complex at the corner of Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue.

The commissioners approved an indirect contribution to the effort by permanently taking over the city’s annual payment of $400,000 to fund the 911 emergency communications center.

In turn, the council agreed unanimously but unofficially to contribute that amount and a matching amount, for an annual contribution of $800,000 for 20 years toward the debt service of the stadium.

The council has scheduled a special session Tuesday to make its vote official, a step that would allow city staff to begin hashing out the terms of a long-term lease with Quinn.

Using the most conservative projection in a feasibility study by Ripken Design of Baltimore, it places the local debt service, which accounts for two-thirds of the total project, at about $20 million over 20 years.

The city’s $800,000 annual contribution would cover $16 million of that over two decades.

The remaining amount, about $4 million, would be funded from private sources, city officials have said.

The city also will seek funding from the state — $10 million to cover the final one-third of the cost.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot have both publicly expressed support for the project.

Once open, new revenue generated at the facility would help support the debt service, according to the Ripken report and city officials.

Public revenues from the center’s operation would come in the form of $300,000 in annual rent from the Suns, a $1 ticket surcharge, parking and non-baseball revenues, plus increases in hotel-motel and amusement taxes, according to the Ripken report.

The $30 million price tag is an inclusive, but preliminary estimate for the project, City Economic Development Manager Jill Estavillo said. It takes into account land acquisition and soft costs, such as engineering and design, she said.

Location, location

Quinn said he met with Estavillo and city engineer Rodney Tissue on May 3 to begin talking specifics for a lease, including the needs of the city and the team as well as amenities for fans and families.

Quinn said he likes the concept of Hagerstown’s proposed ballpark being a multiuse complex in the city’s center, a step Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and others have said would be a catalyst for redevelopment of the city’s struggling downtown.

Under the city’s downtown plan, the stadium would replace most of The Herald-Mail’s parking lot, a county office building, a laundry and a car wash.

Other cities have successfully built downtown stadiums and the results could be similar in Hagerstown if residents give it a chance, Quinn said.

But Quinn also said he likes the proposed locations in Winchester near Interstate 81. He said those sites would have enough space to provide for a 40,000-square-foot facility near the stadium with family entertainment and restaurant opportunities.

Suns minority owner Anthony Dahbura said each ballpark needs to be designed for the anticipated interests of the market, and the Hagerstown space would allow for many of those amenities to be provided.

The Winchester Star previously reported that Quinn would be willing to invest $10 million toward the external facility, which would be separate from the ballpark in Winchester. Quinn said Thursday such an investment would more likely be in the $5 million to $7 million range if he chose to relocate and invest in Winchester.

Quinn said he would consider making a similar investment in Hagerstown, but noted that site constraints at the downtown location make an external facility less likely to be an option compared to the open layout of Winchester’s two potential sites.

One reason he’s considering making the investment in Winchester, Quinn said, is that the team would pay a lower annual rent there because tax revenues from the stadium’s operation — for tickets, food, retail sales — would pay for the facility.

The Herald-Mail reported in February that Winchester’s website provided information about income a stadium was expected to generate, from such sources as rent, sales and meals tax, admission tax and other taxes.

For instance, the Winchester website, using an example it listed as moderate for a failed proposal to build a stadium in its Jim Barnett Park, called for revenue of $623,613 in rent; $158,391 from sales and meals tax; and $128,006 from admission tax. An additional $22,544 was listed as coming from other taxes, the newspaper reported.

Jim Deskins, director of Winchester’s Economic Development Authority, said last week that any new ballpark in the city would be owned by the authority and financed through a bond that would be paid for through tax revenues on the facility.

Winchester would not use city operational money to fund the stadium, Deskins said.

“The stadium would have to pay for itself,” he said.

Looking for answers

City officials understand that Quinn is a businessman looking for the best possible deal for his baseball team.

Metzner said, however, that Quinn’s lack of commitment to the city so far was “frustrating,” but said he believes Hagerstown is “light-years” ahead of Winchester because the city and county have agreed on a funding model.

Metzner said the next step should be for the city to develop a memorandum of understanding with Quinn that would be designed to guarantee he would keep the Suns in Hagerstown if certain requirements were met, much like the memorandum of understanding previously secured by Winchester officials, he said.

That earlier deal with Winchester fell through when its council, facing public opposition to the plan, voted unanimously against a transfer of land in city-owned Jim Barnett Park to the Winchester Economic Development Authority for use as a stadium site.

“So the question becomes does Mr. Quinn want to come to Hagerstown or does he want to say to Hagerstown ‘you guys are way ahead of Winchester, but I’m waiting on Winchester,’” Metzner said. “If that’s the case, we need to find out what’s going on and we need to let the public know what’s going on.

“And I don’t know the answer to that ... but that’s a question that needs to be answered and it needs to be answered soon.”

Winchester is in the analysis phase for two potential locations adjacent to I-81, south of the Apple Blossom Mall, for a stadium complex to attract the Suns, Deskins said.

Deskins said the plan is to determine potential project costs and financing options, and work with Quinn to achieve a “mutually beneficial” opportunity on a facility.

The goal is to have all site analysis completed by the end of June before the EDA can present a proposal with a stadium design to Quinn and put the project out for bid, Deskins said.

Quinn has maintained that it’s not a “race” between the two cities, but Bruchey said Wednesday he’s hopeful that Hagerstown can have a new deal with Quinn ready to go by early June.

“The City of Hagerstown has never negotiated a lease for a new stadium — multiuse sports complex — ever,” Bruchey said, “so there’s going to be a lot of new ground that we have to cover.

“I think that staff will find the expertise that we need to help us put together a lease that benefits everybody,” he said.

Rights and issues

A number of issues remain to be addressed, including which entity will have naming rights and whether the team or the city would manage non-baseball activities in the new ballpark, council members said this week.

Ripken’s study called for the Suns to be in charge of non-baseball activities, with a portion of the proceeds from those activities paid to the city and county. 

City Councilman Martin Brubaker said he hopes the management issue doesn’t become a sticking point in negotiations, but said it’s an important element.

“I hope that the Suns realize that we have a pretty major situation here where the city and county have come to an agreement to keep this process moving and to put substantial sums toward keeping it going,” he said. “I hope they feel that they can negotiate on that basis.”

Similarly, Councilman Forrest Easton said Tuesday he would not support the project if the Suns are granted sole management of the facility.

Bruchey previously acknowledged that other issues will pose challenges, including parking, access for public safety vehicles and traffic around the center.

Here, or there

Dahbura, who has been a leading advocate for keeping the team in Hagerstown, said he sees the recent developments as promising.

“In fact, I believe it’s as far as any of these projects has been able to progress over the last 15 years or so,” he said.

Asked what he thought were the odds of the Suns staying in Hagerstown, Dahbura said he was “very encouraged.”

“I feel that there’s a very strong will, that there’s a vision emerging, and we have a lot of people singing off the same sheet of music, which is wonderful for our community,” he said.

But what if that turns out not to be the case, and the Suns make the move to Winchester.

“Honestly, it’s something we’d have to discuss,” Bruchey said when asked what would happen if the Suns were to leave. “I haven’t went that far because I don’t expect the Suns to leave.”

Bruchey said he was unsure whether the city would move ahead with plans to build a multiuse facility downtown or if officials would look at other redevelopment options.

The mayor said he thinks the possibility of the Suns leaving “has shrunken immensely” now that the city has reached an agreement on a funding model.

County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said if the Suns decide not to stay in Hagerstown, officials would have to re-evaluate the project because the Ripken study calculated revenue from the center based on the assumption of the Suns being there.

“You’d have to go back to that study and say, ‘Without the baseball, could you still have a multiuse sports and events venue that would give you the property tax that we have used as a basis for our funding,’” she said.

“My gut feeling is we would pick another project, because the Suns are such an integral part of that project, but I wouldn’t want to shut the door on anything without doing the math,” she said.

Dahbura said he believes the chosen site at Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue is well-suited to the stadium that is being planned and will make it easy to tie the stadium into the West Washington Street and South Potomac Street areas.

“I also am a believer in the vision for the core of downtown that the city leaders have put together, and it’s been a tremendous team effort between the city and county elected officials and business leaders and other members of the community who really believe in the importance of having a vibrant downtown for our community,” Dahbura said.

The Suns have played home games in Municipal Stadium, under a variety of owners, leagues and affiliations, since 1981. Quinn, along with Dahbura, Mitesh Kothari and Quinn’s sister, Sheri, took over the Suns, a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the Nationals, in 2010.

If the Suns were to leave, the Frederick Keys, a Class A Carolina League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles located about 25 miles away, could block another team from coming in due to territorial issues, according to city officials.

“That’s not a threat. That’s a reality that people have to face,” Bruchey said.

Metzner said negotiations about a new lease with the Suns likely will be held in closed sessions, but the city council will make the public aware of the topics discussed.

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