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Hagerstown, county tentatively agree on funding formula for new sports/events complex

By C.J. LOVELACE - Herald-Mail

The prospect of building a new multiuse sports and events center in downtown Hagerstown took another step forward Tuesday night.

In a joint meeting before a large crowd at City Hall, Washington County and city elected officials agreed on a potential funding model to build the $30-million facility that would be the new home of the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball team.

Earlier Tuesday, the Washington County Board of Commissioners approved an indirect contribution to the city’s downtown revitalization efforts by permanently taking over the city’s $400,000-a-year payment to the 911 emergency communications center.

Following suit, the Hagerstown City Council came to an unofficial consensus to match the county’s pledge, marking a total city contribution of $800,000 a year toward the debt service of the stadium over 20 years.

The five-member council voted unanimously in favor of the funding concept for the stadium, which could host baseball games by mid-2014 or the beginning of 2015 if all goes as planned, Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said.

"I believe that it’s a step in the right direction to getting us to that point that we have to be at to approach the state to get their funding," Bruchey said.

City and county officials have maintained throughout the process that a tax increase will not be needed to pay for a new ballpark at the corner of East Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue.

The city council will hold a special session Tuesday to take an official vote on the funding model, a major milestone in the process because it allows city officials to begin working on a new long-term lease and/or memorandum of understanding with Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn to keep the team in town, Bruchey said.

The team is currently being courted to move to Winchester, Va.

Bruchey said the deal would likely be a 20-year lease with two five-year extension options.

The mayor recently said he expects the Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals to kick in more than the originally expected $300,000 in yearly rent to play in the facility.

Council members spoke up about the potential management of non-baseball events at a new center, which would be handled by the Suns with a portion of revenues paid back to the city and county governments, according to a consultant’s feasibility report.

Councilman Forrest Easton said he would not support the project if the Suns are granted sole management of the facility. The council agreed to discuss the issue with Quinn as part of a new lease agreement.

Using the most conservative projection in the feasibility study conducted by Ripken Design of Baltimore, the local debt service over the first 10 years would amount to about $9.8 million, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

With its annual 911 center payment eliminated, the city could then fund $800,000 annually, or $8 million over 10 years, toward the debt, Zimmerman said.

An additional $188,000 per year, or about $1.8 million over 10 years, in private-sector funding would still be needed, he said.

However, Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he believes that finding private money won’t be too difficult.

"I think we’re moving at a great pace now," he said. "I think private investment is going to be right around the corner, and then we go to the state, and I’m very optimistic this project is going to be done."

State funding would be required to cover the rest of the project, officials have said.

Bruchey noted that even the most conservative projection in the Ripken study shows the facility breaking even by the sixth year of operation, as long as attendance numbers for baseball games are on par.

Although Bruchey acknowledges that there are going to be "a lot of challenges over the next two years," referring to issues such as parking, access for public-safety vehicles and traffic around the center, officials will be able to find solutions and ultimately help improve the city’s struggling downtown, he said.

"It’s a great opportunity," Bruchey said. "I believe there’s a great opportunity here for everybody."

With public support growing, Metzner said interested citizens have already begun forming groups to help seek additional investments from the community.

"It’s amazing," he said. "When I say that 90 percent of the people six or eight months ago thought we were crazy, I probably would include me .... I can tell you there was a time when I did not think this was a project that I would be able to support."

Metzner said he’s "been totally turned around" about building the multiuse facility that would be used for more than just baseball.

Concerts, high school sports, festivals, fairs, and most recently, professional football have all been named as types of events to supplement the Suns 70-plus home game schedule during the summer.

"I think the momentum has just grown phenomenally," Metzner said. "And I just look at Winchester and say, ‘You guys are one step too late.’ And I think we’re going to get this project, and it’s going to be in downtown Hagerstown."

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