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Hagerstown City Council election could make or break multiuse sports and events center project

October 13, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

This year’s Hagerstown City Council election, which is just over three weeks away, could be crucial to moving forward with or putting the brakes on the city’s proposed downtown multiuse sports and events center project, which has been in the preliminary stages for months.

Driven largely by a verbally pledged private donation of $15 million that still is not guaranteed, the current administration has considered the construction of the facility, estimated to cost about $37 million, as not only a baseball stadium, but also an economic driver for the city’s struggling downtown.

Four city council members — Democrats Martin Brubaker, Lewis C. Metzner and William Breichner, and Ashley C. Haywood, who is unaffiliated — are running for re-election.

Councilman Forrest W. Easton, a Republican, withdrew from the race last month, citing increased work obligations and a desire to move out of the city.

The incumbents will be challenged by two former council members in Democrats Kristin B. Aleshire and Penny Nigh, and five GOP candidates — Larry Bayer, Jonathan R. Burrs, Jeffrey M. Coney, Chris Kelly and longtime state legislator Don Munson.

All five council seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 6 general election. The top five overall vote-getters will win seats.

Several of the challengers — including Burrs, Kelly, Munson and Nigh — have voiced direct opposition in public forums to the stadium project as it is currently proposed for a variety of reasons, such as the use of public money to support a private business, the proposed location near the corner of West Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue, a preference to see Municipal Stadium renovated or a disbelief that the project would spur the economic redevelopment that the city hopes to see as a result.

City officials have said the site was picked because it is consistent with current downtown planning and investment efforts, and the area offers maximum incentives for new private investment.

The city is in ongoing lease negotiations with the owners of the Hagerstown Suns, a low-level Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, to be the facility’s primary tenant.

If a deal can be struck, the team is expected to contribute about $300,000 in annual rent payments over a 20-year lease, roughly $6 million, city officials have said.

The city hopes to receive a commitment for about $10 million in state funding this winter from the Maryland Stadium Authority, which has supported stadium projects such as this in the past.

The preliminary funding plan would not require a tax increase to pay for the project, according to city council members, who have said they would not support it if it did.

Talk of building a new stadium intensified earlier this year, when the Nationals did not extend a player-development contract with the Suns due to the conditions at 82-year-old Municipal Stadium, prompting team owners to explore new opportunities that included possibly moving the longtime Hagerstown ball club.

While the proposed stadium, which includes the potential for a $16 million contribution in local funding from the city and county over two decades, remains the hot-button topic in the election, other key issues for candidates include increasing public safety, addressing infrastructure needs, promoting citywide economic development, and fiscal responsibility in city budgeting and spending.

Several council candidates reminded voters during an Oct. 10 forum at Hagerstown Community College that they should consider all of the issues when casting their ballots next month, not just the stadium.

In the April primary, Aleshire led all candidates with 1,390 votes, followed by Munson’s total of 1,319 to top the GOP race.

After Aleshire, Metzner (1,217), Nigh (1,124), Breichner (1,114) and Brubaker (1,058) rounded out the five Democrats who advanced to the general election.

Easton was the second highest vote-getter among GOP candidates with 1,071. Kelly (981), Bayer (961) and Burrs (927) also earned spots on the November ballot.

Coney, who totaled 881 votes, was nominated to fill Easton’s spot after he withdrew from the race.

As an unaffiliated candidate, Haywood did not appear on the primary ballot.

Several years ago, Hagerstown decided to move municipal elections to coincide with the presidential election, hoping to boost voter turnout. Voters overwhelmingly supported the decision in a 2009 ballot referendum.

City council members serve a four-year term and earn an annual salary of $8,000.

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