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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

THAT'S THEIR STORY AND THEY ARE STICKING TO IT

     
    As I look at my notes and think about the Municipal Tours tonight all that I can think is that they still aren't being honest with the people of this town. Overall, I personally and the Hagerstown TEA Party are really only concerned with the funding. I only care how they are going to pay for it, but as this process moves forward it becomes apparent that the flow of information to the public is being managed in a way that breeds suspicion. Tonight they doubled down and stuck to their story. The truth is that the tours and everything that they pointed out as deficiencies, and I have no doubt that they exist, are irrelevant because the Suns owners are demanding a new stadium. These tours were all smoke and mirrors. 
   As luck would have it though, I happen to be in the tour with one of the owners, Tony Dahbura. I wanted to ask him directly and publicly if it was true that the Suns playing in an upgraded Municipal Stadium was "non-negotiable" as I clearly heard stated in a city council meeting. It was stated that the Washington Nationals were willing to work with an upgrade and that they began their "talks" with the owners based on that understanding only to find out that the owners were not. Councilman Metzner stated that, "It turned out that the left hand hadn't been talking to the right hand." The owners of the Suns would not even discuss upgrading the old stadium. Winchester, VA was competing for the Suns at the time, so when the owners presented the multi-use concept as an economic and community development silver bullet to mayor and council, they pounced on it.  
    The Suns came up with this concept back in April of 2011 when they approached the mayor and council  and they approved a list of nongame-day events. According to the Herald Mail (HM), “The Suns sought to host additional events at the stadium to maximize its use, profitability and offerings for the communityGeneral Manager Bill Farley said. The new (Suns) ownership wanted to utilize it for more than just baseball." This is something they had as part of their business plan for a long time.  
   So we have the owners salivating over their financial prospects if they can just get the elected officials to build them their multi-use dream stadium using taxpayer funds. We have the elected officials scared to lose the Suns to Winchester, and I will assume that they really believe in this revitalization of downtown dream...and then off they go to figure out how to make all of their dreams come true. But they forgot about the people of Hagerstown. They forgot to ask them. They forgot to give them options. They forgot to get an unbiased study. Worst of all they forgot to keep them informed. Now the deal is all but done, and it's time to sell it to the people.
   For those of you who weren't able to attend this charade, I will try to paint you a picture. The evening began with the ever pleasant city staff. I have worked with most of these people as a city volunteer for several years now, and I know they are good people, and they have been very kind to me. I don't like being on opposite sides of this issue. This is not fun for me.  
  So City Manager, Bruce Zimmerman, opens with an introduction and acknowledges that there are many "sides" to this issue and mentions "respect" several times. He tells us that this administration has always stressed "living within their means." He gave some statistics to try to back that up and I am sure those statistics were valid, but there is no possible way that they can make that claim and then propose to spend way over $30M on a new Suns stadium in this economy and sound like they are leveling with us.  
   Next up, City Engineer, Rodney Tissue, who to me is the rock star of city employees. I don't know how he does all that he does! He is just doing his job and speaking to the packet that was handed out as we entered the stadium. He came at it from an ingenious angle. "Nothing in this stadium is older than 30-years-old except the bleachers." Good one! Kind of takes the historic out of Municipal Stadium for those who want to upgrade Municipal Stadium based on historic value. Sort of, but not really. Good try though.
   He says he wants to talk to us about "What are the conditions here that we are even having this conversation?" Uh, that would be that the Suns owners won't allow the city to fix these deficiencies because they want a new stadium!
   Then we are given the We Must Keep Up With The Joneses speech with color pictures of all of the amenities that other stadiums have and that we don't. I can hear myself telling my kids, "I don't care how many of your friends have that, we can't afford it!"
    Next are the color pictures of flooded conditions. I think at the last city council meeting someone asked how often has the stadium been flooded and he said "really flooded maybe three times." Three times in 80 years. He did state that there is some flooding  annually that causes game cancellations, but he didn't have any annual expenses paid out due to flooding. 
   We were told that it's not even about baseball. It is about community gatherings. No, pretty sure it's about baseball. I've been to Suns games. I may have a little small talk with a person or two, but it's no social event where everybody knows your name. 
   Finally we are given pictures of areas of the stadium in non-compliance or where there were recommendations for improvements. Mr. Tissue ends with, "The point is, you'd have to do a radical or complete upgrade." True. In December of 2011 the Herald Mail reported that the owners of the Hagerstown Suns would like to see construction on a $9 million to $10 million Municipal Stadium remodeling project beginning at the close of the 2012 baseball season. My how things changed when they got the upper hand with a bid from Winchester.
   I waited for city staff to say it, but they never did. All of these deficiencies can be fixed! The Washington Nationals are willing to let the Suns play at Municipal Stadium if they are fixed! The Suns owners will not play here under any circumstances (at least when Winchester was still interested). That's their story and they are sticking to it. Then we are taken on a tour to see these problems first hand. Like I said, I don't doubt that they exist, but they are smoke and mirrors tonight.  
    I will just mention that the crowd at this point wanted a Q&A from their seats and were getting quite vocal asking for it. There is no way to know who these people were or from which opposition group they were from...could have even just been individuals. I can say that it was not the TEA Party. Some of us had shirts and signs, but we were not yelling demands. I found it a little amusing that this one pro-new stadium woman yacked so much about how rude that those people were, and for so long, that I had to move away so that I could hear the tour!
    Now to the meat of the evening. The tour with Tony Dahbura. At the end of the tour people started to ask questions. I asked him directly, "Isn't this all irrelevant? Isn't it true that the Suns owners (he is one of four) will not allow the Suns to play here under any conditions?" He looked away and said, "I don't think so." Others asked how much it would cost to renovate the stadium and he said $15M (he said $9-$10M a year ago for an extreme makeover). I asked him again, if the $15M renovation was offered would he allow the Suns to play at this stadium. He said, "It's apples and oranges." Huh? What in the world does that mean? Finally, I asked him one more time, "So to be clear, is the possibility of the Suns playing at this stadium non-negotiable?" He said, very coldly, "Everything is negotiable. Do YOU have $15M?" 
    Well, Mr. Dahbura and company, do YOU have [way] upwards of $30M? No? And why should the taxpayer buy you, your business, an expensive stadium when this one can be renovated for half of the price? Why can't you get out there and do the work to get investors to invest in your business? Why can't you and the city partner together to get investors?
     Smoke and mirrors.  
    

   

HAGERSTOWN STADIUM TIMELINE


Note: All quoted information was taken from articles in the Herald-Mail newspaper.

DATE                                              ACTION

Sept [Oct] 2010         Hagerstown Baseball LLC (Bruce Quinn, Tony Dahbura, and Dr. Mitesh Kothari) buy the Suns.

Apr 5, 2011                 New scoreboard was installed at Municipal Stadium.

Apr 6, 2011                The Hagerstown City Council approved a list of nongame-day events that the new owners of the Suns plan to hold. According to the Herald Mail (HM), “The Suns sought to host additional events at the stadium to maximize its use, profitability and offerings for the community [multi-use facility concept was born], General Manager Bill Farley said. The new (Suns) ownership wanted to utilize it for more than just baseball."

July 22, 2011            Light pole fell onto the baseball field at Municipal Stadium during storm, causing the cancellation of the Hagerstown Suns' game.

Aug 5, 2011              Light pole replaced at Municipal Stadium, costing the city $30,000.

Oct 2011                    Owners receive letter from Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals concerning facility improvements that would be required [They would be willing to allow the Suns to play at Municipal Stadium with an upgrade.] to keep the Suns in Hagerstown. They requested that “the stadium be brought to compliance for player, coach and fan safety” to provide an “ability to continue player development and MLB rehab assignments.”

Dec 13, 2011            City officials pledged to support keeping professional baseball in Hagerstown with a $140,000 annual contribution. That $140,000 commitment would not take effect for the 2012 baseball season
                                                
                                   Washington County Commissioners were for a funding commitment during the "citizens' participation" portion of their meeting, but  the commissioners offered no response.


Dec 17, 2011            The HM reported that the owners of the Hagerstown Suns would like to see construction on a $9 million to $10 million Municipal Stadium remodeling project beginning at the close of the 2012 baseball season:  “Earlier this year, the owners paid a national sports facility architectural firm to create a concept for an extreme makeover of the stadium, Dahbura said. Now, they have concept drawings, price estimates and a proposed funding model — and, as of Tuesday, a pledge of $140,000 a year from the Hagerstown City Council. The last missing piece is a funding commitment from Washington County, Dahbura said.”

FUNDING PROPOSAL AT THIS POINT: According to the HM, “The proposed funding model called for $200,000 a year from the county in hotel-motel tax revenue, $140,000 a year from the city in hotel-motel tax revenue and other nongeneral-fund sources, and $200,000 to $230,000 a year from the Suns, Dahbura said. Those payments would continue over the course of a 20- to 30-year bond, he said…While the proposed funding model includes only county, city and Suns funding, state support is another possibility and would reduce the amount the other funders would need to pay, Dahbura said.”

STADIUM VISION AT THIS POINT:  According to the HM, “For the $9 to $10 million price tag, the owners could rebuild the stadium on its current site, eliminating those issues, or build a smaller, yet still adequate stadium on another site, Dahbura said. The extreme makeover concept created this year includes a two-tiered, covered seating area, more efficient concessions, a larger clubhouse, more seats as opposed to bleachers, improved field grading and more Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.”

To improve parking if the stadium stayed at its current location, Dahbura said it's too early to provide an exact plan, but there are several possibilities, including city-owned property nearby….The City Light Department owns several acres on Eastern Boulevard along Antietam Creek that are a possibility for expanded stadium parking, though no formal discussions have been held, Dahbura said.”

Dec 20, 2011            Hagerstown City Council approved an additional $50,000 from its capital improvement program for stadium improvements during this fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2012. The city’s total stadium improvement expenditure would be the $50,000 plus the $30,000 already budgeted for a total of $80,000 on stadium improvements, he said.

Jan 19, 2012             Owners signed letter of intent with Winchester, VA. Winchester planned to fund project with 100% private investments.

NEW STADIUM VISION: A NEW MULTI-USE STADIUM BUILT ON BALTIMORE & SUMMIT STREETS.

NEW FUNDING PROPOSAL: $30M WITH ONE THIRD PAYED BY THE CITY, ONE THIRD PAYED BY THE COUNTY, AND ONE THIRD PAYED BY THE STATE…WITH POSSIBLY SOME SUNS INVESTMENT OR OTHER PRIVATE INVESTMENT.

What happened to the $9M plan to upgrade Municipal Stadium?

Feb 13, 2012             The Washington County Commissioners voted 3-2 to contribute up to $20,000 in county funds toward a stadium design study at a cost estimated at $36,000, to be split between the city and county.

Feb 14, 2012             Hagerstown City Councilman William M. Breichner tells the Herald Mail that officials were discussing the area of the Baltimore Street Station Car Wash and The Herald-Mail parking lot off Summit Avenue as one possible site.

Feb 21, 2012             Ripken Design Contracted to do a feasibility study

Mar 6, 2012               Project Committee formalized with areas of work including a feasibility study, preliminary site analysis, website creation, research, and benchmarking.

March 12, 2012        Winchester, VA City Council rejects land transfer for new stadium.

Apr 17, 2012             Conditions of Letter of Intent with Winchester, VA must be met to solidify the lease agreement.



Apr 17, 2012             Ripken Design Feasibility Study Presentation at joint session of Mayor & City Council, Washington County Commissioners, and the State Delegation (Senator Chris Shank and Delegates Andrew Serafini and John Donoghue).
                                    Prior to the meeting, the HM quoted majority owner Quinn as saying, “The Suns had no choice but to look for alternatives/new stadium to maintain the professional relationship with the Nationals and the SAL.”
Ripken reps said during the presentation that Municipal Stadium was not considered in this study due to “site constraints.”

May 1, 2012              Washington County Commissioners met to discuss a county funding commitment to a new stadium. 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.

May 1, 2012              Hagerstown City Council voted unanimously to match the $400,000 commitment by the county. 
Aug 9, 2012               HM reports that it “is looking doubtful that Suns will move to 
                                     Winchester, VA.”

Aug 28, 2012            Opposition group present 910 signatures to mayor and city council.

Sept 4, 2012              Revealed during a City Council meeting that the Washington Nationals did not demand a new stadium, but were in fact willing to work with an upgrade of Municipal Stadium. It is not site constraints keeping the Suns from playing at Municipal Stadium. It is the owners of the Suns who are refusing to let the Suns play at the Municipal Stadium.
                                    
                                   They decide to have a round-table discussion as a community forum to provide a more “controlled and quiet discussion.”
                                    
                                    They discuss the possibility of giving [deceptive] tours of Municipal Stadium to point out to the community all of the deficiencies, with the intent of convincing them that the only viable option is a new stadium.

Sept 4, 2012              Coucilmember Lewis Metzner announces that there is a $15M anonymous donation for the new stadium, but only if it is built on Baltimore Street.

Sept 5, 2012              Hagerstown TEA Party sends out an Action Alert to ask people to write to mayor and council to ask them to change round-table forum to a truly open forum for the community meeting.

Sept 11, 2012           City Council decides to scrap the round-table discussion and hold an open forum for citizen comments on October 9, 2012
at 5:00 p.m.

City Council approves plan to hold tours of Municipal Stadium on September 19, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.

Sept 17, 2012           Hagerstown TEA Party sends out 2nd Action Alert asking people to write to Mayor and City Council to ask them to change the start time of the community meeting to begin at 6:30 when more people would be able to attend because at 5:00 people are still traveling home from work or eating dinner.

                                    HTP sends out an invitation to “all tea partiers” to attend the This-Is-Why-We-Can’t-Use-Municipal Stadium Tour, with signs showing their displeasure with the process, the refusal to consider using Municipal Stadium, the Suns demanding a new stadium, and/or the public funding for the project.

Sept 19, 2012           City gives This-is-Why-We-Can’t-Use-Municipal Stadium Tours beginning at 6:00 p.m.

Oct 9, 2012                Tentative date for community meeting regarding stadium, to be held at 5:00 p.m. at the Clarion Hotel on Dual Hwy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tony, We Are About There...Time to Tell the Folks!


    The small talk in chamber before the meeting is usually pretty telling. Today I noticed a short row of Suns fans, revealed only by the team spirit-type comments between them and the council members as they entered the room. There were just a few city staff in attendance today, all good people who are always friendly to everyone in the "audience." Right away I noticed Tony Dahbura milling around, who is often referred to as a minority owner of the Suns team. I watched every one except for those who were late to the meeting pay homage to him upon entering. The most telling moment for me was when Council member Lewis Metzner gave him a big handshake and back slap and said, "Tony, we are about there."
    The Executive Session that is conducted in private was summed up by Metzner and presented as non-Suns related and Suns-related. The Suns-related discussion included calendaring, recent negotiations, offers, and basic funding agreements, "concluding in a successful manner for both the city and the Suns." OK, what ever that means. This left me feeling uncomfortable [wink, wink] and left hanging wondering if there was an agreement yet. Since there was no announcement I was left to believe that there still is no lease agreement...or is there?
     Mayor and Council are determined to give we-cant-use-municipal stadium-because-it-is-beyond-repair tours. Remember back when they were going to do a $9M upgrade? Then we were told that the Washington Nationals wouldn't allow the Suns to play there even with the upgrade. The Ripken Report reps said that they didn't consider Municipal Stadium for their study because of "site constraints." We found out at the last city council meeting that it wasn't the Nationals at all and it wasn't site constraints. It was the Suns owners who said it was non-negotiable. Then they wonder why there is so much suspicion around the planning of this project? Regardless, the tours will go on. The first tour is scheduled for September 19th at 6:00 p.m. If you go, you will be shown field conditions, water drainage problems, clubhouse deficiencies, and lacking player and fan amenities. You will be told that there is no opportunity at this site for further development. Knock down all of the failed projects around it and you have plenty of space.  In my opinion these tours are a farce. Municipal Stadium was upgradable for $9M until the Suns owners said that they would not allow the Suns to play there. I wonder if they would be a little more willing to consider the upgrade now that Winchester seems to be dropping out? I think that September 19th would be a lovely evening for a TEA Party. 
    Remember, "Tony, we are about there." Yet they are just now discussing "a public information process" for the new Suns Stadium. At the last meeting they had all but decided on a round table forum that would "provide a more controlled and quiet discussion." I objected to that because the deal is about done! Tony, we are almost there! Yet this is the first opportunity for the community to be heard. They have controlled the entire process without any input from the community. It is time for the community to control the discussion. If they have us in quiet discussion at different tables, we can't hear all of the questions or all of the answers. Don't you think it is time that we do? Apparently there are others who agreed with me and also wrote to the mayor and council asking for a truly open forum. I have absolutely no proof of it, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they have already made a verbal agreement, but for appearances want to wait until after the public forum to announce it. We are so close to an agreement and only now are we planning a forum? Again, I have no proof of that. 
     The community meeting will be held on October 9th at 5:00 p.m. They are almost sure it will be at the Clarion Hotel, but that is not yet confirmed. I actually like how it will be conducted. The "facts" will be available all day in the meeting room. There will be tables, each with information on one topic regarding the stadium. These tables may or may not be manned with city staff. At 5:00 the mayor and council will present their facts and, make no mistake, attempt to sell this project to the community. They are hoping that people will bring their questions in written form (Attention! You are no longer in control! This is the people's meeting!!), and they may put time limits on each citizen comment. There you have it.
   
   Now for the boring details of the meeting:
    Rodney Tissue, city engineer, was asked by Metzner how often Municipal Stadium flooded. Metzner commented that Tissue had been misquoted about this detail in the Herald Mail. Tissue answered that the stadium has only completely flooded three (3) times since it was built. He went on to say that it floods to some degree annually, most recently flooding the dugouts and causing a game to be canceled. He said emphatically that "rain is a significant factor." My questions, had I been allowed to ask them: How many times annually, causing how many game cancellations, and how much money, if any, has been spent annually to repair damages from the flooding? Oh, and would this have been rectified in the original $9M upgrade that the Suns owners will not consider?
     Lewis Metzner said that he would hope that the folks will bring written questions for no other reason than to avoid duplicates. He felt he needed to strongly state that "none of us have any intention on voting on a bond bill until we hear from the community and settle the financing." Interesting.
    Martin Brubaker agreed on the public hearing format, even to include questions about things not brought up in their presentation. Wow, how noble. He feels they need to get all the information out to the community as soon as possible and doesn't think that 2 weeks from the public forum is unreasonable. He thought there may need to be time limits put on citizen comments.
    Forest Easton said that the Clarion has to be confirmed as soon as possible so that they can get the word out to the community. Of course the mayor, who never misses an opportunity for sarcasm towards those that question him, asked him if he actually thought that they weren't going to let the people know where it was going to be held. Easton patiently stated that he was trying to stress the importance of timely information.
    Lewis Metzner stated that there is nothing that any of us want to hide. He doesn't "want to mortgage our children's future with debt and we won't do that. Grant money of $25M is not mortgaging our children's future with debt." Mr. Metzner you are much smarter than I am, but I disagree! Grant money IS taxpayer money! No matter how they slice it or dice it or spin it or gift wrap the financing...if it is not privately invested money it is taxpayer money. If the new Suns Stadium fails to support itself and has to be subsidized like other city projects, it will be taxpayer money. 
    I am still a little frustrated that people think that they know me, what I believe in and who I vote for, based on my involvement in the TEA Party. To them I would say, go ahead and make my day. Ask me. 

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hagerstown Held for $30M Ransom by the Suns!

    The Hagerstown City Council meetings are fascinating! The group dynamic, the heady discussions, the theater all just keep me on the edge of my seat. I didn't realize how much fun they are until building a new Hagerstown stadium became an issue during an election year. I'm sorry, I meant to say the Hagerstown Multiuse Sports and Events Center (HMSEC). After what was revealed at the meeting today, however,  I am going to start calling it what it is: The Suns Stadium. As it turns out, the Washington Nationals told the mayor and council that they would be perfectly willing to stay at the old stadium if it was upgraded. It was the Suns owners who said that they would not play at the old stadium. The Suns owners said that was nonnegotiable. The Suns owners are demanding a new stadium in order to stay in Hagerstown. That was when they had the leverage of the interest of Winchester, VA. Winchester has since decided to pass, but Hagerstown is still being held for ransom by the owners of the Suns!
    Who is going to pay the $30 million ransom for Hagerstown? The taxpayer! We know that the stadium has a commitment of about $10 million from Washington County  and about $10 million from the city of Hagerstown. We were told months ago that the next step was to get a commitment from the state of Maryland. We've been told that they have the nod from the state, but a photo-op by the Comptroller does not amount to one cent of funding. This will be up to the local delegation to fight for if they have the stomach for it with the state budget already bulging at the seams.The public has also been told for months that mayor and council are working hard to get private investors. In fact Councilman Metzner said at one point that he had many phone calls a day from interested investors. None have been announced. 
    Today they gave the taxpayer a few crumbs! We were told that there is one investor and that one investor is willing to invest $15 million! They can't say who it is. Any guesses on who that one investor might be? They can't tell us any details of the deal. But the taxpayer should feel happy to know that they might not be on the hook for all of the ransom money. It even sounded like this investor had completely altruistic motives and we should be very, very grateful!
   Are you kidding me! The Suns is a business! They are just one business who may or may not be good for the community. That hasn't even been sufficiently proven! There are facts and figures and examples that suggest otherwise. How many other businesses would like to be able to take a city, a county, and a state for ransom and be honored and even thanked for doing it! Unilever should have been so lucky! This is crony Capitalism! BusinessDictionary.com defines crony Capitalism as an economy that is nominally free market, but allows for preferential regulation and other favorable government intervention based on personal relationships. In such a system, the false appearance of "pure" capitalism is publicly maintained to preserve the exclusive influence of well-connected individuals. We have one business, the Suns, making demands. We have local government officials bending over backwards in a bad economy, in a depressed city to meet their financial demands.
    Hagerstown has seriously pressing needs. We have seen over 50 city employees laid off. We have seen them cut every corner and stretch their budget. We saw our seasoned police officers decide to retire due to budget constraints, to be replaced by rookies, and many positions not filled at all. We see the empty properties. We don't have enough code inspectors left to force compliance as properties fall into disrepair. We see the increase of drug-related crimes and all degrees of theft. The roads are patched with cheaper material. Our trash collection was cut back to one day. But we are going to fight Heaven and Hell to pay the Suns their ransom?!
   Much of the meeting was a discussion about "the public information process." They needed to figure out how and when to let the taxpayer know what they are being asked to fund and all of those related pesky details.
   Bruce Zimerman, City Administrator, suggested a round-table forum. He described it as a format "that provides calmer discussion." First, mayor and council will present facts that the taxpayer should have known all along. The people paying the bill should get the respect of being informed throughout the process, not after the deals have been made. After their presentation, there will be elected officials placed at round tables, each with a different topic of discussion as related to The Suns Stadium. City staff will also be assigned tables. The Downtown Alliance will have a table. Do tell. Concerned citizens can go from table to table and have a discussion with elected officials and city staff. I'm sorry, but I don't think the public wants a controlled discussion. The public wants to be heard. If I'm at one table I can't hear the questions, much less the answers from all of the other tables! I want to hear every question and every answer! I want it all to be recorded as public record. They have had "control" of this process all along. It's time to hear from the public. 
   Ashley suggested the forum be held at the old stadium. That was nixed, but tours of the old stadium with a scripted tour guide educating the public on why the old stadium can not be used for baseball ever again should begin right away. All they really would have to say is that the Suns owners will not allow the Suns to play there!
   I have to give a few of the council members props. Forest Easton spoke up and asked why weren't any of the details revealed in the meeting today told before now. Councilman Metzner said all the right things, albeit a little late in my humble opinion. He said "we have to  inform the public and do it soon. We have to decide our bottom line and get very public very quickly. We need X-amount of dollars or it's not going to work. We have to do it before signing the lease or it will be us telling the public what we have already decided and agreed to instead of the public telling us what they want us to do." Councilman Brubaker agreed. Councilwoman Haywood said they had to keep secret throughout the process and that she preferred the calmer discussion of the round table forum. Councilman Breichner seemed to agree with her, as did the mayor. 
   Oh, I forgot to mention that there is apparently a Plan B. If The Suns Stadium isn't built, they could possibly use the old stadium for unaffiliated teams.
   In the end they decided to begin the tours. If ever there was a place for an old fashioned TEA Party...

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