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If not a stadium, then what?

November 12, 2012

Two matters should be evident following the Hagerstown city elections: First, it is impossible to read the election results as anything other than a rejection of the $37 million multiuse stadium as proposed on the corners of Summit Avenue and Baltimore Street. Second, this rejection, in and of itself, solves none of the city’s problems.

In other words, if the stadium as currently envisioned isn’t the answer, what is?

It will in all likelihood be up to the incoming council to make some quick and consequential decisions concerning the project. The incoming mayor and three of the five members of the next council have expressed varying degrees of doubt about the stadium proposal, although to their credit, the newcomers seem willing to listen to alternative ideas or ways in which the project can be reconfigured.

This is fortunate, since killing the project outright has multiple ill effects. First, lest we lose sight of the obvious, it would likely spell the end of professional baseball in Hagerstown. It would also stall some murmurs of ancillary growth around the new construction site that have begun to surface in the past few weeks.

Private development riding in on the coattails of public investment is, after all, one of the stadium’s raisons d’être.

The final key — and to us the dealmaker — is the $25 million in “free” money that is currently on the table in the form of $15 million from a private donation and $10 million from the state.

That’s the price of the stadium, at its essence. The additional money would go to a plaza, parking deck and property acquisition. Effectively turning down a free stadium would seem to us to be acutely shortsighted.

We would also remind the new council that the bulk of the opposition to the project was over the location, not over the stadium itself. There are also indications that the Suns are not necessarily wedded to the current site, but just need to know that there will be a place for them to play ball in coming years that meets the standards of the parent Washington Nationals.

All that said, the stadium’s window of opportunity would seem to be narrow. The state funding in particular needs to be locked up soon if it’s to make the cut for this coming fiscal year’s budget. It is conceivable, if not likely, that the stadium could literally be talked to death if the new council becomes too hung up on minutiae.

And that would bring us back to our initial point: Hagerstown’s downtown is in critical condition. It would likely take a stadium plus another major project or two (such as a board of education office building in the city) to regain momentum that was lost in 2006 with the national real estate meltdown.

So again the question becomes, if not the stadium, what? What would the new council do to invigorate the city core?

We have shared some of the concerns voiced by the voters and by the new mayor and council members over the project, so we certainly encourage due diligence. But we do not believe the project should be due-diligenced to death.

A major downtown improvement floated by outside investment has come this far, seemingly against all odds. It would be a bitter pill to start all over from scratch.

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