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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Royal Sales Pitch for a New Hagerstown Stadium

   Well okay, it was actually called a Stadium Feasibility Study Presentation. The study had been conducted by  Ripken Design and the outcome and recommendations were presented on April 17th in a meeting at city hall. The meeting was attended by the Hagerstown Mayor and City Council, the Washington County Commissioners, and the state delegation including two delegates and a senator. The Herald Mail had reported that this was going to be an  "open meeting," which usually means that the public may attend and have a chance to speak. However, Mayor Bruchey opened by saying that this was incorrect information because the meeting was actually a work session, meaning the public can attend but not ask questions or make comments. I could tell by the chatter that most of the audience were Suns fans who already know that they want the stadium and at any cost.
   There were copies of the study and the power point presentation provided upon arrival. The meeting was opened by Jill Estavillo, Economic Development Manager. Her introduction began to set the tone of a sales pitch and then she introduced the three gentlemen from Ripkan Design and the hard sell began.
  Don't get me wrong. In a perfect world I think that Hagerstown should have a new stadium. I only live two blocks from the proposed site. I would like nothing better than for a successful business enterprise to take root in my neighborhood that would raise property values and make my neighborhood a better place to live...but not at any cost. This city is already financially stretched beyond capacity and the state is as well. Businesses are closing at an alarming rate. Houses sit empty. There have been layoffs and cuts in every department of city government. The roads are in disrepair. Teacher's pensions are soon going to be transferred from the state budget to the county budgets. We are facing tough times! Yet, these men and women who represent the taxpayers of the city, county, and state think the possibility of affording a $30M project is viable enough to pay for this study and call a meeting to discuss the feasibility. I am in awe. In fact, when I heard one of the speakers calling this project "magical" I started waiting for him to pull the $30M out of a hat.
   It was hard for me to take the presentation seriously because it was so one-sided. I listened and followed along. Questions came to me fast and furious but of course I was not allowed to ask them. Bottom line,  I wanted to hear how they plan to pay for it. I noticed that the topic of financial feasibility was way at the end of the power point as I thumbed through it looking for clues. The momentum was building and I began to squirm in my chair in anticipation, but before I realized it the presentation was over. No magic, in fact hardly even a mention of how to finance the project. Apparently this plan is depending solely on contributions from the city/county, state, and the team (only "investor") and they predict it will pay for itself in 10 years.  I never heard the words that I was listening for--OUTSIDE (other than the team) PRIVATE INVESTMENT. I felt a little, no very, unsatisfied. 

These were my burning questions:

  • You are going to spend over $30M [revealed later] to save less than $1M plus 150 (number questionable) low paying, mostly seasonal jobs? 
  • Your attendance projections: did you take into account this depressed economy and the poverty level of our citizens?
  • You say that the property values will increase within 1/4 to 1/2-mile radius of the stadium. Really? People want to live near a noisy sports complex with the related traffic issues? I am from Baltimore and they said the same thing when building their two stadiums. To this day, Westport and Cherry Hill (and other surrounding neighborhoods) look like Warsaw Poland after WWII. This is with the Orioles, not a little Single A team. Again, really?
  • Would your property value predictions be different if you knew that 54% of the properties in the city are rental properties with absent landlords? Is the stadium going to improve this phenomenon?
  • I didn't hear one hint of why it may not be feasible. Not one. Yet, where are the investors lining up to get in on this "sure thing"?

  The best part of the meeting was yet to come though. The mayor thanked the gentlemen for their fantastic study and presentation and said he'd like to go around the table and take questions and comments from each person who was there representing the city, county, and state. The president of the Washington County Commissioners, Terry Baker, a known fiscal conservative, sat to one side of the mayor. The mayor commented (with some drama) that he knew  Baker would have a lot of questions so he would go last! He turned to his other side where Delegate Donoghue still had the afterglow from the made-to-order presentation. He was tickled pink!  He thanked the Ripken reps for an outstanding job and was too excited to speak any further. He was obviously sold. I decided that maybe I should begin to take notes because it may getting interesting. I thought it would be telling and it was. The following is taken from my notes, so that I could let people who are truly concerned about how their representatives at every level may be leaning on this issue when it comes to financing it. Please note that I am paraphrasing:

Commissioner R.A. Callaham: I have a lot of questions still. Too many for this setting. I will have to do the research and I need to hear more on how this will be financed, perhaps at a meeting in the near future. 

Councilman William McKinley: Thankful for the great presentation and very encouraged!

Councilman Martin Brubaker: The key is re-investment. [Bingo! And a Democrat too!!] We need to hear from the private sector. We need transparency with the taxpayer at every step. [I'm suddenly loving this Democrat!] We need maximum ensurance that the "proximity clause" would not keep us from getting another team should the Suns leave Hagerstown.

Commissioner Jeff Cline: This issue has to go public and then "let the facts lead."

Councilman William Breichner: This report was needed. The next key is the money. We will need the county and the state [no outside investors?]. Next we will need a financial package.

Councilman Louis Metzner: The next step is to go public. [Wondering if this will make people forget about the secret meeting.] Perhaps someone will make a city/council staff video presentation in regards to financing. The Maryland Stadium Authority has been giving a lot of money to Camden Yards [again, comparing the Orioles enterprise to the Suns?!. Not sure, but think he was saying that he wanted to know if they were going to be willing to invest.] "We can't do nothing. We have to do something."

Councilwoman Ashley Haywood: I like that previous city plans and assessments were considered and incorporated. All of these documents tend to just collect dust. I want to be sure that we have maximum private investments and maximized use of the new facility. I want a plan on what to do with the old stadium. 

Commissioner John Barr: I have a concern for the traffic flow, and the maintenance of roads and who will be responsible for those roads. 

Councilman Forrest Easton: "Let me play devil's advocate." [I already like it.] Do you, Ripken Design, have anything to gain by this study and the positive outcome? Answer: No. Does the $30M estimate include purchasing the surrounding properties? Answer: No. [What? I almost fell out of the chair! Great question with unexpected answer! You have go to be kidding me!] When comparing Hagerstown to other cities, did you consider the poverty level? Answer: A very weak "sure" and we still think this city could support it. Could you explain to our audience what you mean by Direct Income and Indirect Income? Answer: Direct Income is new money spent for the first time. Indirect Money is when that money is spent again say for services or materials. 

Senator Chris Shank: Please understand that it is our job to look critically at the cost of this project. I am relieved that city staff is working from the conservative numbers when given a choice. When comparing Hagerstown to other cities with ball teams, did those cities have the "overlap" of resources, fans, etc. similar to the situation with Frederick and Hagerstown teams? Answer: Most didn't. If I use Aberdeen as an example, and it has more overlap, the outcome is still favorable. "Of course Aberdeen is an anomaly. We didn't consider it at length but we still feel the outcome will be favorable." I am concerned that you are only showing $50,000 in capital reserves. [Some reference made to maintenance and upkeep.] Ashley Haywood interjected that this had been discussed in some committee and was reasonable and the mayor backed that up. All other models that I've [Shank] seen the MSA  contributes and there is usually a third by city/county, a third by the state, and a third by private investment. This model is different. [Delegate Sarafini nodded in agreement.] 

Commissioner Terry Baker: It is my duty to listen to the citizens and look at the long haul. This will be an 80-100 year commitment. I do have a lot of questions (to Mayor Bruchey), but I will research them on my own. I do want to point out that everyone is saying that the old stadium is no longer usable, yet Fenway Park turns 100 years old [next month?] and is still fully operational. A LOT OF BRISTLING in the audience and around the table. Ripken comeback: That is a unique situation. 

  The mayor thanked everyone and asked to meet again in two weeks (May 1st) to discuss funding. All agreed.  I will be there sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for them to pull this money, over $30M out of a hat. I want them to. I want the stadium. I just think it's going to take magic or a miracle...or better yet, many outside investors and lots and lots of multi-uses. 

Full disclosure in case some try to dismiss me as a tinfoil hat wearing, right-wing extremist. Yes I am very conservative, particularly with politics at the federal level. I am also very involved in the TEA Party movement. However, locally I am open to consider the best candidates that support issues that are important to me (from a conservative perspective) even when they belong to a different political party. For instance, in the last election for City Council I voted for: Brubaker (D), Metzner (D), Haywood (I), Easton (R), and Crist (R). I voted similarly for the Washington County Commissioners (Kristen Aleshire-D). I must have left my tinfoil hat at home that day.