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Brien Poffenberger: A project to invigorate our city

September 13, 2012|By BRIEN POFFENBERGER

A unique mix of political courage, civic-minded philanthropy, and a vestige of our industrial past may well combine to help propel the next generation of prosperity in downtown Hagerstown. 

The threatened exit of the Hagerstown Suns and an undeveloped stretch of downtown property sparked a conversation that has led the community to its boldest step yet in the redevelopment of Hagerstown:  the construction of a new downtown stadium. 

The proposed project — more accurately called the multi-use sports and entertainment center — and its benefits go much further than just our local team, but the conversation did indeed start as an effort to keep the Suns in Hagerstown.

Neither the field nor the amenities at Municipal Stadium have kept pace with professional baseball, and that fact alone threatened the loss of the Suns to another community.  Citing the field’s condition, the Washington Nationals have not renewed the Sun’s affiliation contract, and the required improvements to Municipal Stadium proved beyond the scope of a simple make-over. 

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Looking for a solution, the Suns ownership removed Municipal Stadium as an option and started shopping for a better offer.

Professional baseball is an economic engine for Hagerstown. The half-million dollars in direct spending by the team benefits not only their employees and local vendors but — through the taxes generated — the entire community.  Further, Hagerstown has one of only 160 professional minor league teams nationwide, and would be ineligible for another team if the Suns were to leave.  And so as baseball proponents worked to keep the Suns in Hagerstown, community leaders overlaid the stadium problem with the city’s overall economic development strategy. 

Beyond baseball, breathing new life into the city requires not only keeping the businesses we have, but also attracting new disposable income, the mother’s milk of downtown economic development. 

Create a destination, and the customers drawn to one business will likely also spend money in others. The multiplier effect can greatly leverage an initial investment and help guide policy decisions. A convincing body of evidence suggests that entertainment venues offer just such an opportunity, and so the city’s leadership got to work.

Partnering with the county commissioners, the mayor and council dug into the numbers, commissioned a study, and evaluated the impact of a multi-use facility on an undeveloped stretch of downtown real estate.  In a fitting link to the past, the proposed site connects the prosperity of one era with the potential prosperity of another.  The stadium would be located on a once thriving rail yard — the very heart of the industry that built Hagerstown and gave us the nickname “Hub City.” 

The question to move forward hung not on the opportunity a multi-use stadium offers for downtown — there really wasn’t much debate about that — but rather on the project’s ability to pay for itself. 

Relying on the most conservative estimates, the city and county determined that the impact of a downtown stadium would generate enough incremental tax revenue to justify the public investment. 

Further, the stadium’s proponents, not content relying only on traditional financing models, are finding new and creative funding alternatives.  Last week’s announcement of a $15 million gift suggests that their work is paying off.

The proposed multi-use stadium should be seen for what it is: another building block in the larger plan to reinvigorate downtown Hagerstown.

For more on the proposed stadium, status of the project, and answers to questions about financing, parking, traffic and other issues, please visit www.supportdowntownhagerstown.com.  Play ball!

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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