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Bill Freehling is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and Fredericksburg.com. This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Bill Freehling.
Hagerstown Suns to Fredericksburg: Build it and we will come
COMPLETE COVERAGE: View all related stories and images on the Fredericksburg baseball proposal
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The Hagerstown Suns will move to Fredericksburg if the city approves construction of a multi-purpose baseball stadium, the team’s majority owner told The Free Lance-Star on Wednesday.
Principal owner Bruce Quinn said the Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, could begin playing in Fredericksburg as soon as the 2015 season if City Council approves the deal, which would involve Fredericksburg issuing as much as $30 million in bonds to finance construction of a publicly owned stadium off Interstate 95 in Celebrate Virginia South.
“I think that right now we’re going full-speed ahead with Fredericksburg,” Quinn said, calling the city “a nice community” that will support baseball.
Quinn has been trying to negotiate the terms of a new lease with Hagerstown, Md., where a team has been based in some form since 1981, but that city has taken its time identifying potential locations and committing funding toward the construction of a new stadium.
“At this point, there’s been no discussions with Hagerstown,” Quinn said. “You know, it was put on the back burner after the election, and it stayed there until just very recently.”
Quinn said he knew that the team’s future at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium was bleak when he and two other investors purchased it three years ago, but the pursuit of a new stadium has been difficult. Municipal Stadium was built in 1930 and lacks the amenities capable of hosting a minor league baseball team or providing a memorable fan experience.
Quinn and his business partners have designed a Fredericksburg stadium that they think could provide that memorable experience. Plans call for a 5,000-seat stadium on about 22 acres in Celebrate Virginia. The stadium would include a variety of family-friendly amenities and a restaurant with numerous sports-related arcade games that operates year-round. Game tickets would be between $5 and $12.
Quinn has been speaking for months with a small group of area businessmen and elected leaders about the prospect of relocating to Fredericksburg, and just this week went public with his desire to relocate if a deal can be reached with the city.
“I think it’s a fantastic market that’s right off I-95 that’s perfect in terms of fans, and it’s a great market for a minor league team,” said Jeff Nelson, a former major league pitcher and Quinn’s brother-in-law and business partner.
Nelson said the Suns and the proposed stadium would provide more than just baseball for fans.
“They’re getting entertainment,” he said. “They’re getting a chance for their kids to go out, and they’re not spending a fortune on a big-league game. You can go down to a minor league game and a minor league facility and enjoy it probably a hundred times more.”
The Suns, classified as a Low-A baseball team, typically feature players who are early in their careers and have been drafted within the previous two seasons. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ top pitcher, played three games in Hagerstown as he recovered from elbow surgery.
“You’ll see the stars of today and the stars of the future coming through Fredericksburg,” Quinn said, adding that the Nationals see Fredericksburg as a good location that will help the team grow its fan base locally.
Quinn added that much more than baseball would take place at the new stadium. The team plans to hold concerts, community events, festivals and more, and it’s looking into the possibility of minor league soccer and lacrosse. Quinn said there could be as many as 150 events a year at the stadium, which many hope will help jump-start the Celebrate Virginia development.
Quinn said the team plans to launch a website, BaseballintheBurg.com, on June 24. The site will have contests with prizes enticing the Fredericksburg community to submit potential team names, mascots and unique stadium promotion ideas, followed by an online community vote starting July 1. Winners will receive opening day tickets with dinner at the stadium club and be recognized by throwing the first pitch in the new stadium if it is approved.
Much remains to be worked out before the Suns would play in Fredericksburg, however. The city is currently evaluating whether to build the stadium, and, if so, how to finance it. The team would put up $3 million to acquire the land for the stadium, but it will be up to the city to finance it with up to $30 million in bonds.
The Suns have provided the city with a lease proposal in which the team would rent the stadium for 30 years at a price of $105,000 per year. The team has also agreed to split its naming rights revenue, which has been estimated at about $200,000 annually, with the city.
The team has also agreed to split 15 percent of its net profits above $700,000, which Quinn expects to bring the city between about $45,000 and $70,000 per year. The Suns would employ about 30-50 people full-time locally and another 150-200 people part-time. The stadium would also create new tax revenue for the city.
The stadium would be financed in large part through a new tax district covering most of Central Park and Celebrate Virginia. The state Attorney General’s Office has been reviewing the legality of the tax district at the request of the city, specifically to determine whether the stadium would be enough of a benefit to nearby businesses to justify such a levy. An opinion is expected soon.
Fredericksburg’s Economic Development Authority recently commissioned Washington-based Brailsford & Dunlavey to put together a financial analysis showing what the stadium would be expected to produce in revenue. City Council will discuss the possible public release of the report during a Tuesday meeting.
Also at the Tuesday meeting, Fredericksburg City Manager Beverly Cameron will ask City Council to appropriate $50,000 for evaluating the baseball proposal by “engaging bond counsel, financial advisors, and other outside consultants with subject matter expertise,” according to council documents.
The Suns explored a similar deal last year that would have involved relocating the team to Winchester. The deal there ultimately failed due in part to an inability to acquire suitable land for the stadium.
In Fredericksburg the two most-likely stadium sites are the land where the National Slavery Museum was once slated to go if the city can acquire the parcel, or land along Gordon W. Shelton Boulevard between the current home of the Celebrate Virginia Live concert series and where the road ends near the slavery museum parcel. If it ends up on that site, the stadium would be built roughly where a billboard is located on high ground overlooking I–95 just west of the interstate and above the quarry.
Fredericksburg City Council has a public hearing scheduled July 9 to discuss the potential deal. Nelson said he hopes the outcome leads to minor league baseball in Fredericksburg.
“We know what kind of town Fredericksburg is, and we’re excited about going there,” Nelson said. “I think the people of Fredericksburg should be equally as excited. We’re counting down the days until we have this public hearing.”
-Zac Boyer and Bill Freehling