David Hanlin: Strike four?

October 04, 2012|By DAVID HANLIN

During a May 28 game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, Mike Aviles of the Red Sox was at the plate. The umpire mistakenly ruled that the catcher had dropped a tipped third strike.

Aviles should have been out. Instead, on the next pitch he lined a two out single, igniting a rally leading the Red Sox to victory. After the game Aviles said, “I got another swing … it helped us out, gave us momentum, and we kept rolling from there.”

This scenario seems analogous to the current debate over a new downtown stadium. Over the last 20 years, there have been several attempts to find the right formula of location, financing and political will to build a new stadium for our community — with the added benefit of having a minor league baseball team as the primary tenant. Obviously, none succeeded. The current debate might represent Hagers-town’s own “fourth” strike. Let me explain.

In the mid 1990s, a proposal was circulated to develop a 68-acre commercial park at what is now the Centre at Hagerstown. This proposal coined “Home Run Business Park” was viewed as an economic development project. The centerpiece of this project was a new minor league baseball stadium, surrounded by nine additional lots for development of office buildings. This proposal anticipated a state contribution of about half of the cost of the stadium. Missed this opportunity for Strike One!

In 1998, Conventions Sports & Leisure International (CSLI) conducted a feasibility study for a new stadium. That study concluded that a new stadium was financially feasible. CSLI examined the local market for minor league baseball. Population and economic factors were examined and found to be consistent with a supportive market.

The CSLI study projected an average attendance of 3,500 fans per game in a 5,200 seat stadium where the state could be expected to contribute half of the cost. This study examined three potential sites, including east of I-81 between Marshall Street and Salem Avenue near Mack Trucks, and west of I-81 north of U.S. 40. This study concluded that the Marshall and Salem Avenue was the best, but still no stadium. Strike Two!

In 2005, Brailsford & Dunleavy conducted a study at the behest of then-Suns owners Mandalay Entertainment. This proposal was bold. It proposed a new minor league stadium, a hotel, and a convention center, along with commercial and residential development.

The stadium and hotel/convention center were to serve as the centerpieces of a major revitalization of the East end near the existing site. Through a financing model called a tax increment financing plan (TIF), Mandalay was going to build Hagerstown a new stadium.

In a TIF, local government creates a special tax district and agrees to freeze its share of real estate tax revenue in the district to a specified level for a limited period of time. As development progresses and real estate tax revenue increases, the amount above the specified level goes to pay for infrastructure and special purpose projects, such as a stadium. Missed for Strike Three, but not out!

There are important lessons to be learned from these three public attempts. For many years, owners and community leaders have realized that Municipal Stadium had significant deficiencies and that a complete replacement was needed. Studies and proposals have recognized that minor league baseball stadiums can serve to stimulate economic activity in the surrounding area. The State of Maryland recognizes these facts and views its own participation as part of the financing model.

What is the common denominator in these failed attempts? Not the financing, not the location. The political will has kept a new stadium from becoming a reality. The three proposals described above are not the only ones that have been circulated over the years. Reportedly there have been nearly a dozen different proposals.

I sense that never has the formula of location and financing been so close to success as in the current proposal. None has come as close to fruition. 

The people of Hagerstown and the region have been given an extra pitch. This time we must follow Aviles’ example, and hit the ball. In a few years, I think our entire community wants to be able to look back and say, “We got another swing … it helped us out, gave us momentum, and we kept rolling from there.” We can’t afford another strike, because Hagerstown can’t hope for a fifth strike. We will be called “out.”

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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