News surfaced last week that the Suns’ ownership had signed a letter of intent to move the team to Winchester, provided that the terms of a proposed lease could be fulfilled.
After a 30-minute presentation to update residents and the nine-person council on the progress of a feasability study and proposed lease, people inside the packed council chamber spoke out against the proposed stadium for a variety of reasons.
Of the 20 people who spoke during the public hearing, all but one opposed building the stadium.
Some called it a bad business deal that would burden taxpayers while others urged the city to preserve its 170 acres of public land in the city’s only park area and home to numerous longtime activities for Winchester residents.
“If it was a good investment, Hagerstown would be making it,” said resident Carter Foulds, adding that many people don’t want to invest up to $15 million that would be needed for the proposed 4,000-seat stadium that would be visible from Interstate 81. “It’s a bad idea. If there’s any way of killing it tonight, you should kill it tonight before we spend another nickel on this public boondock.”
Increased ticket prices and just a general lack of interest in the baseball community surrounding Winchester were other red flags, some people claimed. Losing public facilities, traffic and letting a private business take over a public park were also big concerns.
“There’s many things to be said about not putting a ballfield at Jim Barnett Park,” Bob Pinner said. “If we give away that land, it will not come back. If that ball club fails, we’re sitting with a stadium that we’re trying to invite somebody to. EDA said they don’t need the 12 acres. They just need 7.9. Winchester doesn’t need 5 acres of paved parking lots.”
“I think it would be an asset to Winchester, but I just don’t want us to give that land away,” said his wife, Sue Pinner.
The Winchester Royals, a college-level summer league team that many regard to be on the level of a lower Class A team like the Suns, plus Shenandoah University and Handley High School all use Bridgeforth Field, which currently occupies the space in question.
Several people supported the existing clubs and said that attendance simply would not be up to par to support a minor league team. Others said that the city could use money that has been spent on studies and engineering to attract the team could in other areas of the city’s budget and other locations would be more suitable for the stadium.
Joe Boyd, another resident, said any profitable ballpark makes money off beer sales, which would be detrimental so close to activities involving children.
“A lot of people love this park,” Boyd said. “We need to protect it, embrace it and keep all outside, private interests out of it.”
After the public comment period, Councilman Art H. Major said it is an evolving situation and called it “asinine” that people have called the new stadium construction a done deal.
“If it was a done deal, we wouldn’t be sitting here tonight,” he said, adding that citizens have been hostile toward city officials for considering the deal.
“I don’t think we should use park land (either),” Major added.
Major acknowledged that there are still some issues with the lease that need to be ironed out, noting that they would not enter an agreement that would put Winchester in any “fiscal or financial risk.”
Under a letter of intent signed by Hagerstown Suns ownership, the Winchester Economic Development Authority and Winchester City Council have until April 17 to formally approve and execute the lease agreement, transfer ownership of the property at Jim Barnett Park to the EDA and approve funding for stadium construction.
According to the letter of intent, if the city of Winchester completes all tasks in time, and Hagerstown Baseball LLC fails or refuses to execute the lease and/or fails to relocate the team to Winchester, the team would owe the city up to $75,000 for the feasibility study and architectural contracts.
A first reading of an ordinance to authorize city officials to transfer land in Jim Barnett Park to the EDA for purposes of constructing the stadium and supporting facilities, but no action was taken.
The second reading will appear on the council’s March 13 agenda along with another public hearing to seek additional input.
Editor's note: This story was edited Feb. 16, 2012, to reflect that one person at the hearing spoke in favor of building the stadium, and to provide a more complete description of circumstances under which the Hagerstown Suns ownership would have to pay if it did not move the team to Winchester.