Hagerstown successful with some projects in 2012, but stifled by stadium proposal

December 30, 2012
  • People look over the visitors locker room at Municipal Stadium during a tour of the ballpark Wednesday evening.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Editor’s note: As we usher out 2012 and welcome 2013, The Herald-Mail has prepared a package of year-end stories that provide short recaps of some of the top stories of the year past.

These stories will be published each day through New Year’s Day.

Multiuse stadium

January-Present: The yearlong process of finding a suitable venue for the Hagerstown Suns has yielded nothing more than strikeouts for city of Hagerstown officials.

Not a new issue by any means, building a new stadium to house the Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals has been discussed for years as 82-year-old Municipal Stadium continues to fall further into disrepair with the passing of each baseball season.

Looking back on the past year, conversations have proven ineffective and largely futile, despite the downtown multiuse stadium proposal that gained steam under former Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

The downtown stadium concept ramped up in April with the release of the Ripken Design feasibility study that estimated the facility could cost about $30 million and spark downtown redevelopment in the city’s struggling core.

City officials, working with their Washington County counterparts, approved a funding formula in May that would foot the bill for about one-third of the debt service for the stadium, with the other portions coming from private sector and state funding streams.

City officials released a preliminary project timeline later in May outlining a plan that could have allowed the first pitch of the 2015 season to be thrown in a new downtown facility.

However, the cost estimate rose to $37 million in September when it was announced that an anonymous private donor was willing to put up $15 million toward the project. That funding has yet to materialize.

Months went by as unrest grew from opponents of the project — mostly due to discussions held by city officials in closed-door sessions — and then came the Nov. 6 election. Bruchey and two members of the five-member council that had supported the downtown proposal were voted out of office. A third member of council had not sought re-election.

While those elected, or re-elected, have said they did not believe the election was a referendum on the stadium, it cast doubt over the downtown proposal.

Time appears to be running out for the city to request money from the state for any stadium project, and without the anonymous donor’s contribution in hand, there seems to be a gaping hole on the private funding side, a crucial piece to forging the public-private partnership that state officials want.

On Dec. 11, Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn, who said he wants to stay in Hagerstown, pitched an alternative site stadium project that could cost around $25 million.

Quinn stressed that he needs to have a deal solidified by the time the 2013 baseball season starts this spring, or the team’s future in Hagerstown might be in jeopardy.

— C.J. Lovelace

Speed cameras

January-Present: With talks dating to late 2011, the city of Hagerstown installed automated speed cameras in various school zones in 2012 as a way to increase safety for children and reduce police workload, according to city and police officials.

The Hagerstown City Council on Jan. 31 approved more than a dozen proposed school zones where cameras could be installed. The first camera installed in March on Northern Avenue between Fountaindale Elementary and Northern Middle schools went live in mid-April.

Since then, 11 cameras have been functioning in 10 of 13 approved locations and have paid large dividends to the city, which receives 60 percent of the money from paid citations. The other 40 percent goes to the camera vendor, Brekford.

The cameras were — and still are — a hot-button issue for some residents. Some argue it’s a cash-grabbing scheme for the city, not just a way to slow drivers in the vicinity of schools.

Then-Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II in April publicly opposed the cameras and their time of operation, Monday through Friday year-round from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., because they issued tickets when school was not in session.

“To me, that looks like a revenue generator,” he said then. “It doesn’t look like you’re looking at school safety for children.”

However, Capt. Mark Holtzman, acting chief of the Hagerstown Police Department, said in July that the early results of the program were “better than expected,” and police saw reductions in speeding by 40 percent to 90 percent in various camera zones.

The money generated from the program, nearly $540,000 from April through October, allowed the city council in December to approve a motion to hire a new police officer dedicated to operating the system and to reinstate three formerly unfunded fire captain positions.

The speed cameras issue $40 tickets to motorists traveling 12 mph or more about the posted speed limit. The fines are reduced to $35 if paid within 10 days of the citations being mailed.

Tickets from the cameras are not considered moving violations, so no points are assessed to a driver’s record and insurance companies are not notified, police officials have said.

— C.J. Lovelace

Recycling program

January-Present: The city of Hagerstown instituted a new single-stream refuse and recycling program in January as a way to stimulate increased participation in recycling citywide.

It’s been producing steady results, a city official said recently.

“Since the new program started and totes were delivered in April, over 84 percent of the residential buildings have participated at least once” in the Recyclebank program that offers rewards for recycling, city Engineer Rodney Tissue wrote in an email.

Tissue estimated that only about 20 percent of households recycled under the city’s old “two-bin” program.

“In November, 61 percent participated at least once so it remains a strong participation rate,” he said.

The amount of recyclables collected has averaged about 50 tons per week throughout the year, but that figure shot up in November, Tissue said.

“Compare that to around 21 tons a week in the old program,” he said. “November was an all-time high for collection of recyclables at 234 tons for the month.”

Tissue said Recyclebank officials report that 26 percent of city residential units with a tote have now signed up for the program. To date, users have earned more than $17,000 in coupons and discounts to various businesses, he said.

“Recyclebank said this is ‘strong’ compared to their programs in other communities,” he said.

In February, the Hagerstown City Council voted 4-1 to authorize the city to take out a 10-year loan for $600,000 to purchase the new blue containers. The loan is being paid back with fees collected under the new program, city officials have said.

Also, the new program offers residents a marginal amount of savings compared to the previous, now costing about $127.70 per year, or about $8 less annually due to a cheaper contract with Waste Management of Pennsylvania, Tissue said in February.

— C.J. Lovelace

Parking plan

January-June: Starting with an online survey in late January, the city of Hagerstown hired an independent consultant to help develop a master plan for parking in the downtown area that considered potential future growth.

Complaints from downtown business owners about a lack of on-street parking spaces and poor enforcement in the city center area became commonplace in recent years.

The results of the study came out June 12, stating that a lack of adequate parking is based on perception and not reality, according to officials with Rich & Associates Inc., based in Southfield, Mich.

The 19-block study concluded that only about half of all available parking is being used during peak times, and no additional parking structures or lots are currently needed.

The goal of the firm’s 100-plus-page report, which cost $33,464 and was chiefly funded through the city’s parking fund, was to identify current usage, problem areas and what would happen to the parking situation if the economy improves and usage increases, city Public Works Manager Eric Deike said in February.

In June, David W. Burr, the firm’s project manager for the study, suggested that the city increase its on-street parking rates from 50 cents to 75 cents per hour and reduce rates in the parking decks from $1 to 50 cents per hour.

This would encourage more long-term parkers — those who stay more than two hours — to use the decks and not park on the street, which inhibits turnover and available spots for downtown shoppers, he said.

When asked about raising rates, Deike said in June that city staff members were “still thinking about it.”

In July 2011, the city levied its first on-street parking rate increase in close to three decades, increasing the metered cost from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour, Deike said then.

The study also found that there was a parking deficit in the area south of Washington Street and west of Potomac Street, which contains the Washington County District Court building, Keystone building, The Maryland Theatre and some county government offices.

The southwest quadrant was the lone area to show a scarcity of parking, according to the report, while the northeast, northwest and southeast quadrants had surplus spaces. That surplus would drop dramatically if downtown buildings were reoccupied in upcoming years, the consultants said.

The Hagerstown City Council has taken no further action on measures related to parking since the report was issued.

— C.J. Lovelace

MELP plant

August-Present: The former Municipal Electric Light Plant, which has been idle for decades, is viewed by city officials as an eyesore in Hagerstown’s East End and a public hazard due to loose asbestos inside.

Still, it’s been an ongoing struggle as the city continues to search for a way to take the building down and clean up the 2.96-acre property at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard south and Mount Aetna Road.

On the back burner for the better part of 2012, the issue was discussed by the Hagerstown City Council in August and again in December.

Council members have said it’s a priority to demolish the decrepit structure, but a stalemate exists between the city and the property’s current owner, Partners Marketing LLP, largely due to financial concerns.

With the possibility of more than $1 million worth of scrap metal still inside that could offset costs, it’s difficult to negotiate a settlement and demolition contract since neither side is “willing to take a financial risk,” Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said Dec. 11.

“When you talk about the amount of tonnage that’s in there, every time the scrap market takes a dive, it frightens people,” he said in August.

The city offered $750,000 — $500,000 in unappropriated Capital Improvement Program funds and another $250,000 in future bond proceeds — as a contribution toward the demolition to be paid upon completion of the cleanup of the property, but the MELP owners still haven’t been able to finalize an agreement due to various legal issues.

Discussing the matter on Dec. 11, city Utilities Director Michael Spiker told the council that city staff wanted an additional 30 days to allow the owners to submit an agreement of sale to the city by Jan. 10, 2013.

If that does not take place, the city could purchase the property outright, condemn it or begin the process of eminent domain at the direction of council, Spiker said.

— C.J. Lovelace

City election

Nov. 6: At the request of voters in 2009, city of Hagerstown elections were moved to coincide with the presidential elections in 2012, a move that was viewed as a way to increase voter turnout, according to city officials.

City voters cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election while in the background was the issue of a $37 million proposal for a downtown revitalization project, including a new stadium facility for the Hagerstown Suns.

When the votes were counted, Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, a vocal leader for the stadium project, had failed to win re-election, ousted by David S. Gysberts, who during the campaign advocated an open process for examining public issues.

Councilmen Martin E. Brubaker and Lewis C. Metzner, who supported the downtown proposal provided the funding model holds up, both won re-election to the five-member city council.

Former council members Kristin B. Aleshire and Penny Nigh, the top two vote-getters overall, also earned seats to return to council, and longtime state legislator Donald F. Munson rounded out the new administration.

Departing council members included William Breichner and Ashley C. Haywood, who both lost their bids for re-election. Forrest W. Easton withdrew from the race after the April primary.

Also decided in the election, city voters spoke “loud and clear,” according to Metzner, when it came to Question A, which asked citizens if the city should remove party affiliations from future municipal elections.

About 70 percent of the total 10,057 votes counted were in the “Yes” category, meaning they supported the move to nonpartisan elections.

The city council on Nov. 20 voted unanimously to approve a resolution to amend the city’s charter to remove political parties from future elections.

As part of the change to the charter, the elected body over the next four years may appoint any person, regardless of political party, to fill a vacancy should a council member leave office.

— C.J. Lovelace

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