Officials with the Winchester Economic Development Authority announced Monday the authority has voted to seek transfer of public land for construction of a new baseball stadium to attract a minor league baseball team.
“We think we have exciting news here, of an action taken this morning — (a request for) transfer of public land to the Economic Development Authority to bring minor league baseball to the city of Winchester,” Winchester City Manager Craig Gerhart said during a morning press conference.
No team was mentioned by name.
There has been talk that Winchester and the Hagerstown Suns have been in discussion to move the Class A South Atlantic League team from Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium to Winchester.
No Suns personnel attended the Monday meeting. Bruce Quinn, the Suns majority owner, was traveling and was unavailable for comment.
Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said earlier this month that Quinn told him Suns owners were considering a move to Winchester. Other local officials said Monday they had been told the same thing.
Gerhart said the EDA, in a closed session earlier Monday morning, agreed to seek a transfer of approximately 12 acres of public land in Jim Barnett Park, which is behind Shenandoah University, to the EDA.
The Winchester City Council would have to approve the land transfer and, before the stadium could be built, would have to approve the EDA’s issuance of bonds, said Jim Deskins, executive director of the EDA.
The Winchester City Council agenda for its work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday includes “a discussion regarding Minor League Baseball.” The purpose of that discussion will be to decide whether to refer the land transfer request to the full council for a vote, Deskins said.
Deskins added that a stadium project was a “process contingent on getting over hurdles, but if we were able to move forward, we’d like to move as quickly as possible. The idea was to have something in place by next year if at all possible.”
The land would be used for construction of a 4,000-seat stadium with 750 parking spaces at a cost of about $15 million, Gerhart said.
Gerhart said that cost could go to $16 million or $16.5 million if financial backing becomes available.
Winchester will look to finance the project with a pair of bonds — a revenue bond and general obligation bonds — that will cost $890,000 a year for 30 years, according to a study made available to the media.
Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium seats about 5,000 people, but that number is an estimate because much of that seating is bleachers, said Charles Warhurst, director of facility operations and management for the Suns. Warhurst said he did not know how many parking spaces there are at the stadium.
Officials in Winchester on Monday did not mention the Hagerstown Suns.
“We are not going to announce that we have a deal with any specific team or teams that we might be in discussion with,” Gerhart said.
Winchester officials have had a feasibility study done on the stadium project, Deskins said.
Economic development officials said if they do not get a minor league baseball team, they would not go through with the project.
A financial analysis commissioned by the city provided some clues that pointed to the Suns as the possible tenant of the stadium.
The introduction to the study said that Winchester conducted the preliminary market and financial analysis because it had “executed a letter of intent with a Low Class A Minor League affiliated team that desires to relocate to the City of Winchester.”
The study’s section titled “Comparable Ballpark Review” used the South Atlantic League as the main focal point, using a team that had drawn 135,000 in attendance. The Suns play in the SAL and drew just more than 135,000 fans in 2010.
The study looked at six cities, including Charleston W.Va., Rome, Ga., and Salisbury, Md., all cities with South Atlantic League teams, as towns that are comparable to Winchester.
The stadium, if built, also would be used by Shenandoah University and Handley High School.
“The major tenant would be a minor league baseball team,” Gerhart said, but Shenandoah University and the high school would have access.
This move would “be bringing a higher level of baseball to the area,” Gerhart said. “We are just bringing baseball to baseball and doing it a better way.”
The land for the stadium also could be used to attract national events, including baseball tournaments and concerts, Deskins said.
The new stadium is part of a plan that would eliminate the need for renovations to Bridgeforth Field, where the university and high school teams now play.
“We need to do maintanence to the facility and we were looking at a minimum of $5 million just to renovate Bridgeforth Field,” said Brad Veach, director of Winchester Parks and Recreation. “We could have to make improvements to the field lights, playing surface and the press box.”
Additional playing surfaces could be built to attract tournaments, he said.
Jim Barnett Park, where a new stadium would be built, is near Interstate 81, off exit 313. The park already has several baseball and softball fields, and a BMX track.
The stadium would be built on the site of the BMX track, with parking on Bridgeforth Field, Deskins said in a phone interview later Monday.
The Winchester EDA was created through state-enabling legislation and the agency is empowered with the ability to sell bonds and to build facilities for economic development purposes, Deskins said. It is a separate entity from, but works closely with, the city, he said.
In addition to serving as executive director of the EDA, Deskins also holds the title of director of economic redevelopment for the city.
The stadium complex will be a project to make Winchester a major location in the Shenandoah Valley, he said.
“We think minor-league baseball would be a really stellar addition to what Winchester has to offer,” Gerhart said. “Cities are in competition for economic prosperity and for survival. They are in competition for residents, in competition for business and in competition for tourism. We are trying to create a combination of that to compete in that kind of market.”
Staff writers Heather Keels and Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.