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Looking doubtful Suns will move to Winchester

August 09, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

Officials in Winchester, Va., appear to be losing hope that they will land the Hagerstown Suns baseball team, according to a published newspaper report in that city.

With Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn’s final decision still up in the air, Winchester City Council President Jeffrey Buettner told The Winchester Star on Wednesday that he’s not optimistic that the South Atlantic League club will be coming to town.

“I have not heard anything that leads me to believe that this is moving forward,” he told the newspaper.

Hagerstown officials have been working toward forging a new long-term lease to keep the low-level Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals in town, but it still is unclear when a deal might get done.

In Winchester’s case, a deal would need to be soon.

Eric Krupa, president of the South Atlantic League, has said any decision to move the Suns would need to be made by September if they want to play in a new location by 2014.

With that deadline rapidly approaching, Buettner told The Star that he is questioning if Winchester still is a viable option in the eyes of Quinn.

“If we’re being viewed as a fallback, I’m not sure that even works without losing another whole season,” he said, according to the newspaper’s report.

Jim Deskins, executive director of the Winchester Economic Development Authority, which would build and own a ballpark in the Virginia city, said the last time he spoke with Quinn was about six weeks ago, according to the newspaper.

Quinn told Winchester officials then that he would wait to make a decision between the two cities.

Messages left for Buettner and Deskins seeking comment were not returned Thursday.

If Hagerstown can strike a deal with Quinn, it would be a major milestone as the city continues to do preliminary work toward building a downtown multiuse sports and events center that would feature the Suns as its primary tenant.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said in late July that he expected to have something to present to Quinn by mid-August.

Public financing is the major difference between the two cities’ proposals.

Hagerstown and Washington County officials have agreed to a funding formula that will provide up to $800,000 annually for 20 years toward repaying the bonds that would finance the construction of the stadium and an adjacent parking garage.

Two-thirds of the estimated $30 million facility would be paid for through local debt service, meaning the city, county, Suns and the private sector, while the final one-third, about $10 million, would have to come from the state.

The Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to sell $9.08 million in bonds for city projects, including $4.42 million for early-stage tasks toward the construction of the ballpark, such as property acquisition and site design.

Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said Tuesday that preliminary approval of the bond sale does not mean the stadium project is a done deal just yet. A final decision on the bonds is not expected until September or October.

Jill Estavillo, Hagerstown’s economic development manager, told The Star initial environmental studies of the proposed site near the corner of West Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue have been completed.

Estavillo did not return a phone message seeking comment Thursday.

In Winchester, taxpayer dollars will not be used to pay for any stadium, officials there have said.

Revenue generated at the facility would be used to pay for it and a significant contribution — somewhere in the $10 million range — would be required from Quinn in what Deskins has called a “business partnership.”

A letter from the Nationals sent to Quinn earlier this year stating that Hagerstown’s 80-year-old Municipal Stadium was no longer up to Major League Baseball standards prompted the owner to begin looking for other options.

Hagerstown officials have all but abandoned the idea of renovating Municipal Stadium, and have been working toward building a downtown multiuse facility that is believed to be the spark needed to spur redevelopment of the city’s struggling downtown.

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