As rivalry for the Hagerstown Suns sends the local community scrambling to drum up support for a new baseball stadium, many observers are asking themselves, “Haven’t we been through this before?”
Questions of potential sites for a new stadium, the project’s economic impact and how it could be funded have been asked — and answered — again and again over recent decades. In 2000, a push to find money to build a new stadium went so far as to inspire the doubling of the county’s tax on hotel and motel rooms from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Yet 12 years later, no stadium has been built, leaving some to wonder what happened to the extra hotel-motel tax revenue.
According to figures provided by Washington County Administrator Gregory B. Murray, the county has collected about $15.3 million in hotel-motel tax in the 11 full fiscal years since the rate doubling took effect. Half of that, or about $7.7 million, is attributable to the rate increase.
The money has been used for economic development incentives and to support cultural and recreational projects and events, Murray said.
Using some of that money for a stadium project was discussed in 2000, but that use was not a stipulation of the state legislation authorizing the rate increase, he said.
“It wasn’t specifically just for a stadium, and now that it’s being used for (other purposes) countywide, to come back and say, ‘Let’s take all that money back and use it for a stadium’ — there’s probably going to be a lot of people that are not going to be happy with that,” Murray said.
Intended for a stadium?
The 2000 doubling of the hotel-motel tax came as Winston Blenckstone, then-owner of the Suns, was upping the pressure for the city to build a new stadium.
Municipal Stadium, built in 1930, was not up to the standards major league teams wanted for their minor-league affiliates, Blenckstone had been telling officials. Already, Hagerstown had lost its Double A Baltimore Orioles affiliate to Bowie, Md., when new standards were established for minor league ballparks, and bringing Municipal Stadium to Double A standards proved too costly.
In 1998 and 1999, community leaders had explored building a stadium as part of a business park near Interstate 81, and, later, on the site of the Hagerstown Roundhouse on Burhans Boulevard. The city had pledged some funding, but a state or county contribution still needed to be found.
In December 1999, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to ask the county delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to raise the hotel-motel tax to 5 percent, saying the extra money raised, an estimated $320,000 a year, would pay $3 million of the debt service for a stadium complex.
By March 2000, the delegation had agreed to seek an increase to 6 percent, and the deal had evolved to include a requirement for the county to pay down its water and sewer debt.
The bill passed in April.
“I think what the delegation was mindful of at the time was there was definitely some projects in the community that were tourism-linked, one of which was a stadium, but it hadn’t quite matured in terms of a critical mass to support it,” recalled Sen. Christopher B. Shank, then a state delegate. “But the hotel tax was, at that time, 3 percent, and the surrounding jurisdictions were all higher, and there was room in the hotel tax at the time to go up and use the proceeds to funnel back into economic development ... and at the same time to finance tourism promotion and various projects.”
Shank said using the increase for other economic development and tourism projects violated neither the letter nor the spirit of the law because legislators wanted only to leave the door open to helping fund a stadium, should support and a viable plan for one take shape.
What the law says
The 2000 legislation said the county would give 45 percent of the tax to the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and use the rest “only to develop tourism attractions, enhance economic development, and support cultural and recreational projects in Washington County.” Municipalities in the county could apply to the county for hotel-motel funding for projects in those categories.
The legislation also mentions a stadium. It says the county “may not use any hotel rental tax revenue for the construction of a new stadium in the county” until certain conditions are met. Those conditions were:
• The Maryland Stadium Authority must develop a preliminary plan, an estimated cost, an economic impact review and a financing plan for the stadium, as well as a redevelopment plan for the existing stadium.
• Those plans must be approved by the county commissioners and Hagerstown City Council and submitted for review by the delegation.
The legislation says that as part of its review, the authority should consider the viability and costs of a “multi-use stadium” that would also be used for nonprofessional baseball, soccer, lacrosse and track and field.
Where the money has gone
Before the 2000 rate doubling, Washington County passed nearly all of its hotel-motel tax revenue to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which used it for tourism marketing, CVB President Thomas B. Riford said.
After the doubling, the county gave 45 percent of the new total — increased in 2005 to 50 percent — to the CVB, essentially maintaining the same use for the original 3 percent tax, he said.
With the new, additional, 3 percent, the county made grants for qualifying projects and incentives. Municipalities had to apply to the county for a share of those funds until in 2008 the county decided to distribute a portion of the hotel-motel tax revenue to each municipality under a formula based partially on population.
According to Murray, some of the largest contributions from the hotel-motel tax have been for economic development incentives. For example, in 2009, the county agreed to give an $810,000 incentive to help T. Rowe Price Group build a backup data-recovery center off Downsville Pike. That contribution is being made from the hotel-motel tax over six years, county reports show.
In fiscal year 2011, a $123,201 payment for the T. Rowe Price project was the largest of the county’s hotel-motel tax transactions, reports show. Second-largest was a $100,000 contribution toward enclosing the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts courtyard, and third was $50,000 toward marketing of Direct Air’s service from Hagerstown Regional Airport.
Other fiscal year 2011 hotel-motel tax contributions from the county were:
- $20,000 for the Salute to Independence event
- $15,000 to The Salvation Army for construction of a new community recreation area
- $10,500 to Bergman Eye Center as an incentive for a new building for creation of jobs
- $10,000 to Capital Women’s Care as an incentive for a new building and expansion
- $5,000 to sponsor a Take Flight II hot air balloon sculpture to benefit the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts
- $3,115 to cover Sheriff’s Office overtime for the JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon
- $1,845 to cover Sheriff’s Office overtime for the Tour of Washington County bicycle event
- $1,500 to the Washington County Historical Society for its 100th anniversary celebration commemorative book
The city used its share to make a $45,000 contribution to the museum project; to support the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Discovery Station, Maryland Theatre, Hagerstown Municipal Band, Washington County Historical Society; and to fund events including fireworks at Fairgrounds Park and the Harvest Hoedown.
Towns reported using the funds for events such as National Night Out, July 4 celebrations, parades, Christmas events and, in Hancock, visitor center projects.
Looking to the future
Paul Swartz, a former county commissioner who was a leading supporter of a new stadium at the time the tax was raised, said Friday that even though a stadium project did not come to fruition at that time, it would have been wise for the county to set aside some of the increased hotel-motel tax revenue for a future stadium investment.
The increase “was basically for tourism, but it was also for the stadium, and they should have put some aside for the future,” Swartz said by phone from North Carolina, where he lives now. “That was my intent anyway.”
“It would be a nice chunk of change right now, 12 years later,” he added.
Swartz, who has been following the recent stadium discussions, said he still believes a new stadium would be a valuable economic development tool.
He attributes the failure to build a stadium 12 years ago to the idea’s unpopularity among residents.
“The educated constituents — I’ll say it that way — the ones that were in the business end of it and so forth definitely were in support of the venture of the stadium and so forth, but the people that made up the voting block probably convinced the other commissioners that maybe they’d better just hold off,” Swartz said.
Former Commissioner Ronald Bowers, who pushed for a stadium business park in 1998, said Friday he blames a lack of political will for the project’s failure to get off the ground in the past.
“You have to have the convictions of what you’re doing,” Bowers said. “I see a difference now. I see interested people and I see conviction.”
Shank said from his perspective, the key to a successful stadium project is a willingness by the team’s owner to make a substantial private contribution. He said in his view, the closest the community had come to a new stadium was in 2005, when owner Mandalay Sports Entertainment pledged several million dollars toward a stadium as part of an East End revitalization project.
The current situation seems more like that of the late 1990s and 2000, with owners looking to the public sector to pay the majority of the cost or potentially lose the team, Shank said.
“I’ve seen this movie before, and I’ve seen how it ends,” he said. “When I see a strong proposal from the local government and the private sector, then we’ll see what happens, but that hasn’t emerged yet.”