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Friday, May 4, 2012

STADIUM FEVER IS SPREADING


    I've been attending meetings and following the news in the Herald Mail regarding the proposed new stadium. I've noticed a dramatic mood swing in our city and county officials regarding the financial feasibility of this project. In the beginning there seemed to be a healthy skepticism. I sensed that they wanted a stadium for Hagerstown, and they wanted to win the tug of war with Winchester, Virginia, but they had real doubts about funding the project. I was definitely on the same page.
    At first the only real excitement at the meetings were the Suns fans who want a stadium at any cost. I get that. They showed up with Suns T-shirts and full of an almost feverish energy and excitement for their team, but the commissioners and council members remained cool. But at the last meeting, possibly the most important meeting so far because it was about funding the project, I could tell that the fever had spread! The powers that be got the bug!
    Earlier that day the Washington County Commissioners met to discuss a county funding commitment. They ultimately voted (3-2) to "indirectly" commit to $400,000 a year. Instead of "directly" committing $400,000 a year on a 20-year investment, they decided to take over the city's $400,000 payment for the new Emergency 911 Center indefinitely! Does that sound like they are completely convinced that this is a profitable venture? It seems to me that they want to appear to support the stadium while not really supporting the stadium. County Administrator Greg Murray is quoted in the Herald Mail as saying that he recommended the indirect contribution so that the county would "remain at arms-length." He went on to spin it to seem like it made financial sense, but really? They would rather pay the money indefinitely than to take the chance on a 20-year investment? Only County Commissioner President Terry Baker (the Conservative pariah among his Republican colleagues) and Jeff Cline voted against funding the stadium. Then off they all go to take this unremarkable show of support to the joint meeting with the Hagerstown City Council. 
    I could literally feel the change in the air at that meeting. The pre-meeting small talk, the body language, the tone of the room was much different than the last meeting. I knew something was different, but I couldn't predict what transpired. The meeting opened with City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman recommending that the city match the $400,000 indirectly committed by the county. Economic Development Manager Jill Estavillo gave a recap of how this project began and a summary of the sales pitch that was given by Ripken Design at the last meeting. Then Mr. Zimmerman gave a quick statement with real numbers concerning possible funding. This is what I've been waiting for since this whole drama began. 
    He said that using the most conservative figures the debt service would be $9.8M over 10 years. Government funding would roughly cover $9M meaning that they would need $1.8M private funding during those same 10 years. That's it, only 1.8M? That is about 7%. I've heard almost every commissioner and council member stress for months that private investment would be key to their support. Yet it seems they are willing to move forward with as little as 7%. What worries me about this is that if this venture was promising as far as profit, private investors would be lining up to invest! They should be at least a third of the projected funding, but even more would be better! This indicates to me, in my humble opinion, that this is not a sure thing. Not even close. Private investors have not yet been affected by Stadium Fever. That is why city and county (along with the hoped-for state funds) are already promising the lions share of the funding. The truth is that the taxpayer is going to be almost the sole investor! Why? Because it's not financially feasible to do right now, in this economy, in this depressed city, with this lack luster team.  
    Oh by the way, you know how city and county officials have repeatedly claimed that this can be done without raising  taxes? Mr. Murry is quoted in the Herald Mail as saying that the county will get at least a conservative 2.5 percent return on their investment "in the form of increased property tax revenue from increased assessments within a quarter mile of the stadium." Oops. 
    Now the boring but necessary, quick paraphrase of each official's closing statements:


 Councilman Easton. He asked for the exact words of the motion that passed in the county commissioner's meeting early that morning. I think he wanted to make clear that the commitment was unremarkable and "indirect." He then followed up on his questions from the last meeting. First, that when Ripken reps answered his question claiming to not profit in any way from the study, Easton stated that they possibly will profit in future services on the project. He then cleared up that the rep answered incorrectly that the cost of the site property was not included in the $30M projected cost. He referenced Del. Sarafini's statement at the last meeting about a typical  funding formula of one third city/county, one third state, one third private sector. He wanted to know when they will start holding public forums dedicated to this project. He ended by stating that he could not support this project unless they get a favorable management agreement with the Suns.


Councilman Metzner. It is time for this. Private investors are important and they are coming out of the woodwork (OK my words), approaching him daily about wanting to invest in the project. He then spoke  to the voters saying that he cares about the church and he cares about those in public housing. He concluded with the next steps need to be getting  a lease agreement with the Suns, securing state and private funding, and that Joe citizen should be able to invest $100. (Joe citizen in this town couldn't even afford to go to a game.)


Councilman  Briechner. We need state money. We have to have some rights in this agreement with the Suns. 


Councilman  Brubaker. The public [taxpayer] needs to understand that this is an economic development catalyst and an investment in re-development. Frederick will benefit if we do not build a stadium [so our battle is with Winchester and Frederick]. We need a memorandum of understanding with the Suns. I fell in love with this guy at the last meeting. This meeting, not so much.


Councilwoman  Haywood. We need state funding. Earmarks a dirty word in this environment [Del. Donoghue loves them!]. We need a commitment from them next session. We need to start working on this ASAP.


Commissioner R.A. Callaham. I am concerned about how management of the facility will occur. Other than that, like everyone else here, I think we are all for it. I think we should all hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah [raging fever].


Commissioner Jeff Cline. It's not easy to have a differing opinion. This does not mean that I won't be a team player and work hard to make this work if we proceed.


Councilman McKinley. I'm for it. I've been for it all along. After we sing Kum Ba Yah I think we should sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game!


Commissioner Baker. I made my thoughts known this morning. I don't need to repeat them. I provided an 8-point handout this morning stating what it would take for me to support this project. I can't understand how we can't give employees cost of living raises but we can build a multimillion dollar facility. [Seems immune to Stadium Fever. Interesting.] 


Mayor Bruchey. Rah, rah, rah...blah, blah, blah [hopelessly infected].


   The vote was a unanimous "consensus" to match the $400,000 commitment by the county. There was a standing ovation by some, clapping, and back slapping (all symptoms of the fever). 
    Anybody that knows me knows that I love Hagerstown. If we could afford this project I would be more excited than Mayor Bruchey! Unless private investors get the fever I just don't see how we can risk taxpayer money when people are hurting, the city is understaffed, homes sit empty and abandoned, businesses are  fleeing the City Center, roads are not properly paved (even though Del. Donoghue says they are great), and we are dealing with an increase in crime that is symptomatic of a bad economy (theft, robbery, drugs, and domestic violence) with less police officers. I just haven't caught the fever...yet. 
 

2 comments:

  1. The commissioners are not looking at the whole picture and my first reaction is who will profit from this venture? Certainly not the taxpayers!! Where is the business plan to make this a self sustaining venture? I HAVE NOT SEEN ONE!! How are yougoing to make this pay for itself. If you cannot anser that then you better forget it!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Profit?! That's a dirty word, isn't it? LOL

    ReplyDelete

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