Does Fredericksburg have an affordable field of dreams?
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The availability of well-located and affordable land for a Fredericksburg stadium could differentiate the city’s efforts to land a minor league baseball team from an unsuccessful attempt in Winchester.
Last year, Winchester officials were unable to strike a deal that could have brought the Hagerstown Suns to that city after going through a process similar to the one Fredericksburg officials are now in the middle of.
Officials with the Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, approached Winchester officials in 2011 with interest in relocating there if a modern, multipurpose stadium were built, said Winchester Economic Redevelopment Director Jim Deskins.
As was the case with Fredericksburg this year, Winchester last year asked for and received General Assembly authorization to be added to the list of Virginia cities that can retain a portion of state sales taxes generated at an affiliated minor league baseball stadium to help service the debt on the facility.
Deskins said a deal was in place that would have created enough revenue from a stadium complex to service the facility’s debt, and the Suns had proposed a lease. But the deal ultimately fell apart due to an inability to find suitable land for the stadium.
Two parcels in Winchester, both of which are highly visible from Interstate 81, received serious consideration as the stadium site, Deskins said. The first was the city-owned Jim Barnett Park, and the second was a vacant parcel near the Apple Blossom Mall.
Winchester City Council in March 2012 unanimously rejected transferring land at the park for the baseball stadium after concerns were raised about traffic and alcohol use near where children would be playing. And the price tag for the Apple Blossom Mall site, which Deskins said was in the range of $10 million to $15 million, proved too much.
Deskins lamented that Winchester wasn’t able to make the deal work, saying a baseball team is a major draw that is a source of community pride and identity. He said it provides an activity for young families, retirees and everyone in between, thereby boosting quality of life.
“Minor league baseball is a wonderful thing for the community,” he said.
Though nobody will say it publicly, all signs point to the Suns as the team the city of Fredericksburg is now also speaking with about relocating here as the Suns continue to talk with Hagerstown, Md., officials about getting a new stadium deal there.
Unlike Winchester, Fredericksburg does have several sites that are attractive to the team and that could be purchased for an affordable price. All are in Celebrate Virginia South and are visible from Interstate 95, which could prove lucrative for a naming-rights deal, the proceeds of which would be shared equally between the team and city under the current proposal.
Perhaps the best-located site is the 38 acres that was initially slated to be home to the U.S. National Slavery Museum. That project has long been stalled, and tax delinquencies have led to the city beginning the process of selling the land at auction while a legal battle plays out. Fredericksburg officials have looked into the prospect of acquiring that land for the stadium through the tax sale process or a negotiated deal.
The team has looked at two other roughly 22-acre sites in Celebrate Virginia South that are also visible from I–95, said Jud Honaker, president of commercial development for the Silver Cos., which is developing Celebrate Virginia and whose principals own the land along with a group of investors.
One of the sites is just to the west of the slavery museum land, and the other is just to the north of the Fredericksburg Expo & Conference Center on land where Kalahari Resorts was once slated to go.
Honaker said the site to the west of the slavery museum is the most likely location for the stadium if efforts to obtain the slavery museum site fail. That land is 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. Shoney’s has long rented that billboard, but the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center recently signed to take the advertising space.
The team has agreed to put up $3 million for the land to be purchased. Honaker said his company would sell either of the 22-acre sites it owns for the $3 million, which he thinks is probably half of what the land is worth. He said the stadium will help jump-start the Celebrate Virginia development, which has gotten significantly behind on its real estate taxes amid a sluggish economy.
The city of Fredericksburg would own the land and issue up to $30 million in bonds to build the multipurpose stadium, which would be used for 65–70 minor league baseball games a year in addition to a large variety of other events including concerts, additional sporting games, car shows, wine festivals and more. The team would lease the stadium from the city for 30 years and pay $105,000 annually to the city in rent, under the current proposal.
The estimated $1.9 million in annual debt service would be funded 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 this week.
Revenues from the stadium, including sales, admissions and meals taxes; naming rights; rent; and a profit-sharing arrangement between the team and city could potentially be pledged toward debt service.
Fredericksburg City Council has a July 9 public hearing scheduled on the matter, which the council has discussed only in closed session up to this point.
Bill Freehling: 540/374-5405