Since it was announced earlier this month that an anonymous donor had verbally agreed to give $15 million for Hagerstown’s proposed downtown multiuse sports and events center, speculation about the donor’s identity has swirled.
Now, questions about the person’s financial standing have surfaced, and the donor’s ability to give such a large sum of money is being questioned.
Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner, who said previously the donation cannot be relied upon until the money has hit the city’s bank account, on Wednesday reacted to questions about the donor’s ability to come up with $15 million.
“If these folks are right — that they think the individual who’s promised to give the $15 million doesn’t have the money — well, then I guess we’re going to be looking at a different project with different funding sources, but it’s not going to involve $15 million in taxpayer money because that’s not going to happen,” Metzner said. “There’s got to be private financing.”
The anonymous donor first contacted the city in late April saying he would make a donation in exchange for naming rights and other requests, according to Metzner, who has remained silent on the person’s identity.
The city has used “public and legal resources” to find out more information about the person, who officials have said is a Pennsylvania man who once lived in Hagerstown, but no immediate red flags were found, Metzner said.
“There’s been discussions, meetings and this has always been a question,” Metzner said. “Until money is produced, it’s all talk, and we know what talk is worth.
“We have yet to see if this person ... has the money or doesn’t. I can’t tell you and I’ve tried to make that as clear to people as I can do. If the person who is claiming to have the money doesn’t have it, you got to scratch your head and ask the questions why people do what they do, but I don’t know yet because I don’t know whether this individual has the money ... (or) doesn’t have the money.”
Grumblings from opponents of the proposed project that could land a new ballpark for the Hagerstown Suns near the corner of West Baltimore Street and Summit Avenue by 2015 have gotten louder in recent weeks, either displeased with the stadium’s location or upset with city officials’ desire to use public taxpayer money to partially fund the venture for a private organization, the Hagerstown Suns baseball team.
Some opponents have claimed that the total project cost has shot up from the original estimate of $30 million to more than $50 million since the announcement of the private donor. Metzner said that was untrue.
Metzner said the potential $15 million donation hasn’t increased the cost of the stadium’s construction as much as it has increased the possibilities for downtown redevelopment surrounding the project.
Considering needed land acquisitions and other costs, Metzner said he estimates that the total costs when all is said and done could rise above the $30 million estimate, although he couldn’t pinpoint a specific figure currently.
Metzner said he believes opponents of the project have lost sight of the facility’s original focus, which is downtown redevelopment. Some citizens have said they simply don’t believe it will be bring the change that city officials anticipate.
A year or two ago, the city was hoping to attract a large employer, like the Washington County Board of Education, to bring 100 or more jobs downtown. Something like that would have likely required a land acquisition and/or the addition of another parking deck, much as the proposed stadium project does, Metzner said.
“This is all being done along those lines ultimately for downtown redevelopment,” he said. “But this all fits in and the funding source (from the private donor) that we had made this affordable.
“And if we don’t have that funding source, then we’re not going to have this project without another funding source. It’s not going to be taxpayer money.”
As it stands now, officials have said funding for the project could look like this — $15 million from the private donor, $10 million (if approved) from the Maryland Stadium Authority and about $6 million from the Suns through annual rent payments of $300,000 over the term of a 20-year lease, making up a total of about $31 million.
City and Washington County officials earlier this year agreed to a funding formula that could supply another $800,000 annually over a 20-year bond, another $16 million, to support the local share of the debt service for the potential total cost of the project, in theory, of about $47 million.
“The project that this council is looking at ... will cost the city substantially less money than the current situation that the Suns have with the current lease at the current stadium,” Metzner said, considering that the Suns currently pay the city only $1 in annual rent to play at 82-year-old Municipal Stadium while the city has picked up costly maintenance and renovation tabs over the years.
The city’s plans have been based on the availability of the private donor’s large sum of money, which has not yet materialized or been agreed upon in writing, Metzner said.
If that $15 million isn’t there, he said, it would change the city’s direction in pursuing the project because private sector funding is crucial to securing the $10 million from the state.
“Hopefully we’re going to know sooner than later,” Metzner said. “There has never been intent on mortgaging our citizens’ future for the sake of this downtown redevelopment project. It’s been done, specifically, with the intent to save our citizens money and simultaneously do downtown redevelopment.”
A new long-term lease between the city and the Suns, a low-level Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, has yet to be announced, even though both sides have spoken positively of negotiations recently.