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Suns could set on Hagerstown

The majority owner of the Hagerstown Suns has signed a letter of intent to move his minor league baseball team to Winchester, Va., but citizens in that community are pushing back against the idea.

The potential move comes after Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals, with whom the Class-A Suns are affiliated, requested improvements to 82-year-old Municipal Stadium, where the team has played since 1981.

Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn signed the letter of intent contingent on Winchester moving forward with plans to build a new stadium and approving a lease by April 17.

Quinn was not available for comment, but last week he told the Hagerstown Herald-Mail: “I like Hagerstown and we want to stay as an affiliate of baseball. At this moment, the only thing I have in writing is from Winchester in regards to a new stadium.”

But Hagerstown officials have not given up hope of retaining the team. Though Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations, the City Council in December approved giving $140,000 annually to the Suns for stadium maintenance. It also approved an additional $50,000 for renovations this fiscal year, and the city is considering building a new stadium.

Municipal Stadium was renovated in 1981 and 1995, according to the team’s website.

Del. John P. Donoghue, a Washington County Democrat, said he has been “trying very hard to keep baseball in Hagerstown.”

Though he could not disclose details, he said “the key is that whatever we do, we try to put together a group of investors,” emphasizing that financing a new stadium should not fall to taxpayers.

Based on a draft of the new lease, the Suns would play in Winchester from 2013 to 2034, with the possibility of renewal.

If the Suns walk away from the deal, they could face up to a $75,000 fine to reimburse Winchester for the cost of its due diligence, which includes a feasibility study the city commissioned. The study was produced by Washington-based facility planning firm Brailsford & Dunlavey, which is also helping Winchester negotiate a lease for the stadium.

One of the first hurdles Winchester needs to clear is approval to give about 8 acres in Jim Barnett Park to the city’s Economic Development Authority, which would build the stadium. The EDA has capped the budget for the new ballpark at $15 million.

Twenty-five area residents spoke at a public hearing on Feb. 14 about bringing a minor league team to the city, with all but one of them against the idea, according to media reports.

Retired banker Charles Greeb, 88, has been a resident of Winchester for 40 years, but previously spent five years as chairman of the Hagerstown Economic Development Commission.

Greeb spoke at the hearing, and said last week in an interview that “the economics don’t make sense in [the park] or in any other location in the city.”

The city is already home to the Winchester Royals, a Valley Baseball League team. Royals players are NCAA athletes who participate in the league during the summer.

“[The Royals] very rarely have crowds of 500, and here they’re talking about professional baseball drawing in excess of 2,800 [people]. I don’t see that as going to happen here. The market is not that good,” Greeb said.

George Schember, 70, a Winchester resident who worked for years as an economist, also spoke out against the proposal at the public hearing.

Schember said in an interview that he has read through the entire draft lease and found that “it doesn’t make any economic sense.”

Aside from financials, Schember said people at the meeting were concerned that the proposed location for the stadium would cause traffic problems and damage the character of the park. The EDA’s $15 million budget is not enough to build a stadium and buy land, he said.

But Schember said that his biggest concern is that the team can break the lease for $800,000.

“So theoretically, if things didn’t work out, the EDA is stuck with payments, between the bond payments and maintenance, of about $1 million a year. The city of Winchester doesn’t have $1 million a year,” he said.

Though he would not confirm what team the city is negotiating with, Winchester City Councilman John A. Willingham said the draft lease has already undergone changes.

“In any real estate transaction you have, you have negotiations on the deal,” he said. “There’s lots of ebb and flow on a deal like this. I’m trying to protect our downside as much as anything else.”

Brian Hester, 30, a commercial loan officer and third-generation resident of the city, also came out to the meeting. He was the only person who spoke in favor of brining a minor league team to Winchester.

“I was actually surprised no more people showed up at the meeting. Everyone that I’ve talked to is all for it,” he said.

Comparing the Royals and the Suns is like comparing apples and oranges, Hester said. The Suns are professionals, “these guys have already made it. It’s still a higher class than [the Royals],” he said.

The biggest issue working against the prospect is residents who are afraid of change, he said.

“Winchester is changing. We’re growing a lot faster than I ever would have imagined,” he said, adding that though he did not fully agree with the draft lease terms, he believed the city could work out a viable deal.

The City Council will hold another public hearing at its March 13 meeting, and they may vote on the decision to give over the parkland. If the council does not approve the land conveyance, that would put the deal at serious risk.

“I wouldn’t say that that would kill the deal, but that would be a pretty big blow, at least the way it has been structured as of today,” Willingham said.