HAGERSTOWN – City officials are afraid they will lose their minor league baseball team, the Hagerstown Suns, if they don’t build a new stadium, but commissioners in debt- ridden Washington County are skeptical of the $10 million project.
The team, a Toronto Blue Jays Single A affiliate, cannot turn a profit in 68-year-old Municipal Stadium, said General Manager David Blenckstone.
Both Bowie and Salisbury have built new minor-league parks this decade, and Suns supporters say it is their turn. But Washington County, still in debt from a recently constructed sewer system, may not help finance a new stadium.
The five-member county commission voted against an initial $8 million to $9 million stadium proposal last February. And the stadium would likely lose a referendum vote, said new commissioner John L. Schnebly.
Without county support, stadium proponents will not get the $4 million to $5 million they want in state funding, said a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
And without a new stadium, the Suns are history, said Blenckstone. “At some point, you just can’t keep waiting for people to give you answers.”
There is still a chance for the stadium. Only one member of the county commission that voted against the stadium was re-elected last fall. And the ballpark now has a business park attached attractive to a city that is out of space, said Fred Teeter of the Hagerstown Chamber of Commerce.
The new proposal would cost the county and city about $2.5 million each with the state paying the remaining $5 million. The 4,500-seat stadium would share 68 acres with a nine-plot business park.
One of the new commissioners, Paul L. Swartz, is strongly pro-stadium. He says Hagerstown cannot afford to lose the Suns and the $5 million in collateral business revenue they produce every year. He admitted the stadium would force the county farther into debt at first. “But my theory is you have to spend money to make money.”
Teeter said it would look bad for the city to let such a high-profile business leave. Especially when its owners say they want to stay.
Other local officials wonder if keeping the Suns is worth sacrificing money for schools or public safety. One of the new county commissioners, William J. Wivell, opposes the project. The other three commissioners said they will wait until they have the final proposal in hand before deciding.
The lone holdover on the commission, President Greg I. Snook, said adding the business park makes the project more appealing than the proposal he voted against. But he said school construction and other capital projects are more of a priority to him.
Another commissioner, Bertrand Iseminger, said even if all the numbers in the current proposal are accurate, there still isn’t enough money in the budget for the project.
“At what point do you sacrifice money that could go into schools and other projects for a stadium, that in my mind, has limited benefits?” he asked. “My answer is you don’t.”
Schnebly said he will be hard-pressed to vote for the proposal unless he sees more support in the city’s business community. Allegheny Power has pledged $1 million to own the name of the stadium, and a local paving company has offered to pave the complex for free. Still Schnebly said he needs to see a groundswell of enthusiasm among local businesses.
Hagerstown lost the Suns twice before, first when the Orioles Single A affiliate moved to Frederick and became the Frederick Keys and again when the Orioles Double A affiliate moved to Bowie and became the Bowie Bay Sox. In both cases, a new franchise immediately moved in.
Because the state helped pay for two teams to leave Hagerstown, Teeter said, the city deserves help keeping the Suns this time. But if the process remains stuck on the local level, the state will not intervene said Glendening spokesman Don Vandrey.
Blenckstone said his father, Suns owner Winston Blenckstone, will consider selling the team to an out-of- town bidder if he sees no progress this legislative session.
Municipal Stadium is not a bad ballpark. Nestled between two worn-down factories and a row of older white houses, it fits its surroundings.
Peak through a gap in the fence and you see the colorful advertisements painted on the outfield wall and a 16-foot mural of Babe Ruth in right field. Walk on the grass, and you feel the 39-inch rise in the outfield created by a natural shale deposit under the field. Sit on the backless bleacher benches under the brown press box, and you know you’re far away from $200 million Major League ballparks being built in cities around America. But soon, maybe after the 1999 season, Municipal Stadium will sit vacant. “Old is nice to go back and look at,” said Suns fan club president Gary DeWeerd, “but new is what people want and what other cities have to offer.” -30-