Stadium idea is bold one, but others also needed

May 05, 2012

The proposed $30 million stadium to primarily serve as home to the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball team is no easy call. To broaden its appeal, local leaders have set it up as a multiuse facility that could be used for high school sports, music festivals and perhaps even a minor league football team. The stadium site is also being sold as a key to downtown economic success, snug as it is against South Potomac Street in the city’s core.

The stadium is not cheap; as currently imagined, it would cost local government, i.e., the taxpayers, $800,000 a year to pay off its share of the $30 million note in 20 years, the balance coming from the state and from private sources (which we need to hear more about before taking an unequivocal stand).

We begin by congratulating the City of Hagerstown and Washington County for reaching this tentative deal. This is a bold, courageous project, whose success is hoped for, but not guaranteed. In a community that too often suffers from paralysis in the face of progress, the importance of this agreement is self-evident. There is a healthy fear of failure in most every large public project, but the city and county have concluded that the potential rewards are worth the risks, and for this they deserve credit. It’s been a long time.

Like many others, of course, we do have our reservations. The downtown site would not have been our first choice (even with leaving out the fact that the project would require acquisition of a portion of The Herald-Mail’s parking lot).

We are concerned about traffic and we are concerned about the noise from fireworks, bands and public-address systems, particularly as it might affect nearby senior housing. Nor do we believe consultant reports suggesting rosy attendance figures and implying a stadium will be a magic pill for an ailing downtown. The city core will receive an economic boost from the stadium, but we doubt that baseball fans will flood downtown shops, most of which will have closed well before the first pitch of a night game.

And even a modestly attended game might pose traffic and parking challenges that would need to be addressed.

But we do see the stadium, potentially, as part of something bigger.

By the time the stadium is complete — if the deal even goes through — we expect real estate and the economy in general will be coming out from under their respective rocks, with capital coming off the sidelines and looking for new opportunity.

The economic spillover of Suns fans is debatable; what’s not debatable is the shine that a new stadium casts on a city in the eyes of developers, none of whom want to be the last to jump on an expanding market. Growth and development are by definition contagious.

And this leads us to our strongest conviction: The City of Hagerstown will not be resurrected by half measures and timid positions. It will only be changed by bold strokes, of which a new stadium would be one.

But it cannot be the only one. The real work of the city and county is yet to come. Both must work tirelessly to build on the stadium if it comes to fruition and take advantage of its energy. A stadium, standing alone, is bound to fail. A stadium is a stepping stone. It is not the opposite bank of Prosperity River.

Success will depend on the attraction of dollars — private dollars, preferably — invested in a city that has taken the initiative to kick-start its fortunes with a strong investment in itself. It will take hard work on the part of local leaders to convince inside and outside interests that investments in these areas will have their rewards.

In the end, the stadium project is valuable in two respects. It could serve to lock in professional baseball — both a small-town status symbol and an important entertainment venue for our community. Second, it is the one, perhaps only, more or less shovel-ready project that has the potential to land a strong punch in the city’s favor. But it will only succeed if it is followed up with heavy punches to come.

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