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Proponents of proposed downtown stadium speak out

It was standing-room only inside the Hagerstown City Council chamber

September 25, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, speaks in favor of Hagerstown's proposed multiuse sports and events center during a Hagerstown City Council meeting Tuesday.
By Colleen McGrath, Staff Photographer

Opposition to Hagerstown’s proposed multiuse sports and events center has grown in recent weeks, but proponents of the project are starting to show their support.

Twenty-nine people spoke before the Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday night, including 20 who urged the council to continue moving forward with the project. The other nine were against it, mostly for its price tag, location or the need to vacate Municipal Stadium.

It was standing-room only inside the council chamber, and the scene outside City Hall before the council meeting resembled a tailgate party as more than a dozen supporters sported red T-shirts with “got game?” written across the chest. They passed out popcorn, Cracker Jacks, signs and other pro-stadium materials.

Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has pledged money toward the estimated $30 million project, said The Washington Post has called Hagerstown the “poster child for economic decline.”

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In recent years, many businesses have closed or moved out of Hagerstown and Washington County, Riford said, but baseball has remained constant.

“Baseball is still here, and I hope it stays here because it’s a big economic impact,” he said, noting $3.5 million or more each year is generated by minor league baseball in Hagerstown. “This facility could keep things good, and moving forward for Hagerstown.”

The city has been eyeing a site near West Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue for its proposed multiuse facility, which would be the new home of the Hagerstown Suns, a low-level Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.

City officials have said the project is about more than just baseball, expecting the multiuse facility to spur economic redevelopment and create a downtown destination.

Chick Meehan of St. James said the Suns offer a nice, affordable option for family entertainment.

“I would like to thank the council and everyone involved for your courage and insight to revitalize the downtown,” said Meehan, who added that he’s seen the positive impact of downtown stadiums in York and Lancaster in Pennsylvania. “It can be the same for Hagerstown, and we definitely need this.

“It is easy to say ‘no,’ but if we keep saying ‘no’ to any development, there will be no change,” he said. “And with no change, we have no progress. We need progress and we cannot let the downtown stay stagnant.”

The city hosted a tour of Municipal Stadium last week as a way to show people the challenges it would face in renovating or rebuilding the 82-year-old ballpark.

Francine Donachie, who works downtown and is active in the Hagerstown Downtown Alliance, said the tour let her not only see the deteriorating conditions at the stadium, but also to hear what people on both sides of the issue had to say about the proposed multiuse facility.

Donachie said the tour offered great dialogue, but she was saddened when she overheard a person who said: “Downtown is dead. We should let the thing die.”

“For us, this project is more than baseball,” she said. “It is an opportunity for us to grow.”

Another supporter, Regina Swope, said having baseball in Hagerstown is like a gift to the community.

“It’s something that we don’t want to take a chance and lose it,” Swope said. “Because at this point, if we lose it, we won’t get (a team) back.”

Myersville resident Bob Savitt said Suns baseball brought his family to Hagerstown and Washington County, and they have since visited many places in the area.

“We fell in love with Washington County because of baseball here in Hagerstown,” he said.

While proponents turned out in force, armed with signs and brightly colored shirts, those against the idea of a downtown stadium — for a variety of reasons — continued to voice their concerns.

Richard Hays, a resident of Boonsboro, said he was most concerned with the financial burden the city incurs by undertaking a project of this magnitude, considered the largest in city history.

Summit Avenue resident Julie Rivett, who has been vocal throughout the process, said it could “mortgage the city’s future.”

City officials have maintained the project, if approved, would not include a tax hike for residents.

Other people claimed downtown lacks an adequate police presence, making people feel unsafe, and that it needs to be cleaned up for it to be attractive again.

“They need something to make them feel more secure,” said Carol Smith, who lives at the CW Brooks building near the proposed site and serves as head of the tenant association there. “They would like to see the stadium built somewhere else; not in that area.”

After the nearly two-hour public comment period, Councilman Martin E. Brubaker reminded everyone the city has not agreed to go forward with the project, and will not do so until convinced it is financially feasible.

Still up in the air is a long-term lease with the Suns, which would need to happen before the project could move forward, city officials have said.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said after the meeting the city is still waiting to hear from Suns ownership about their most recent proposal, but it was great to hear comments from residents Tuesday — both for and against the project.

“We’ve heard the opposition’s side. We’ve heard people who are proponents of this stadium, this entire project, and it’s like I said, this project does make us unique ... and it creates economic development,” Bruchey said. “It was good to hear both sides tonight.”

The city plans to hold another informational meeting Oct. 9.

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