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Majority of Hagerstown council members now supports downtown stadium for Suns

August 20, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Hagerstown City Councilman Donald F. Munson, right, addressed other members regarding the possibility of a downtown stadium Tuesday night at City Hall. At left is Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire and at center is Mayor David S. Gysberts.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

After months of public inaction, a majority of the five-member Hagerstown City Council is now in favor of building a new multiuse stadium for the Hagerstown Suns at a controversial downtown site.

Councilman Donald F. Munson — who got elected last year running on a platform that opposed a downtown stadium — publicly pledged his support for the downtown location on Tuesday at City Hall, saying he sees little else in the way of large projects that can help re-energize the city’s downtown tax base while retaining the minor league baseball team.

“I saw no real future for downtown Hagerstown,” Munson said, noting that the decision caused “real agony” for him. “I just think we need to give this a try.”

Munson said it was the first time he flip-flopped on a major issue in his decades of public services, but in weighing what needs to be done for the future of the city, he decided it was necessary.

“I just regret emotionally that I have to turn around, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said.

Fellow Councilmen Martin E. Brubaker and Lewis C. Metzner — both members of the previous administration that first pushed for a downtown stadium for the Suns, who are currently considering moving to Fredericksburg, Va. — have remained steady in their desire to see a stadium built near the corner of West Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue.

Adding Munson would give the council three votes to move forward if a long-term lease and financing models could be worked to build the stadium, which is pegged to cost around $36 million, according to the latest estimates from city officials.

Speaking after Brubaker, Metzner and Munson during the council’s discussion on the stadium, Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said it almost seemed “scripted.”

Aleshire supports building a new stadium, but not downtown. He said he would prefer to build a less-expensive facility at one of the two adjacent sites to Municipal Stadium on East Memorial Drive, while Councilwoman Penny Nigh has favored a renovation of the current 83-year-old ballpark.

Suns officials have said they would not continue playing at the current location.
 
Mayor David S. Gysberts said he’s been in constant contact with Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn, who was in Fredericksburg Tuesday night to meet privately with city officials there on the latest proposal that includes a privately-financed sports entertainment complex.

Quinn said in an email Tuesday night that the meeting in Fredericksburg was “positive.” He also noted that he had similar positive discussions with Gysberts and City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman earlier in the day.

Munson said his support of the downtown site is only temporary, depending on Quinn’s intent to continue discussions with the city in working through the terms of a long-term lease to stay in Hagerstown.

Funding gap

Financing remains a major concern for city officials, who still plan on a funding formula that calls for one-third each coming from local sources, meaning the city and county, as well as the state and the private sector.

The Suns have previously pledged about $6 million to the project, including an up-front contribution of $3 million in addition to annual lease payments. But more is still needed to bridge the private funding gap.

“I’m going to work and spend a great deal of time in Annapolis” during the upcoming General Assembly session to get the state’s share of about $10 million, Munson said.

Munson — who believes Hagerstown has a “65-percent chance” to keep the team — said he would also work to get a recommitment from the Washington County Board of Commissioners, which previously pledged indirect support of about $400,000-a-year over two decades to the project.

Now with a public consensus on a site, Gysberts said the next steps for city staff members will be to work on identifying additional private funding sources, finalizing a new lease agreement with the Suns and, if all goes accordingly, beginning the property acquisition efforts.

Gysberts, a critic of the public process of the last administration led by former Mayor Robert E. Bruchey, said the city plans to keep the public better informed as progress is made this time around.

Gysberts said the council’s majority decision Tuesday marked a “seminal moment” for the elected body. He said the topic will be back on the agenda soon to continue public discussion.

“I do think this is our opportunity to say to the community, and to the world, this council is going to take bold action,” he said.

Fredericksburg deal

In Fredericksburg, City Councilman Fred Howe told a local newspaper Tuesday night that he is “75 percent” sure the city can strike a deal with the Suns to bring them to Virginia after meeting with Quinn.

The Fredericksburg City Council could vote on the proposal with the team at its Aug. 27 meeting following a public work session to discuss details, according to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper.

The Suns, a low-level Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, have partnered with New Jersey-based Diamond Nation in a proposal to build a sports complex in Fredericksburg with a new 5,000-seat stadium for the team, estimated to cost about $38 million.

Fredericksburg has been asked to pay for a portion of land and a 1,800-space parking lot for the facility, which would include at least five artificial turf fields for amateur baseball and softball camps and tournaments.

The Suns’ current lease in Hagerstown expires at the end of the 2014 season.

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