If Fredericksburg builds stadium, will baseball fans come?
COMPLETE COVERAGE: View all related stories and images on the Fredericksburg baseball proposal
Among the many debates swirling locally over a proposed multi-purpose stadium in Fredericksburg is the validity of an estimate on how many people would attend games there.
RELATED: View complete coverage of Fredericksburg’s pursuit of a minor-league team and stadium.
A pair of Brailsford & Dunlavey reports paid for by Fredericksburg’s Economic Development Authority at a total cost of $27,000 estimate that 4,300 people on average would attend minor league baseball games at the stadium after the “honeymoon” period wears off.
Critics of the proposal, which would involve Fredericksburg issuing as much as $30 million in bonds to build a 5,000-seat stadium for the Hagerstown Suns Class-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, don’t believe that 4,300 people would attend the games on average.
Chief among the factors they have cited is the Suns’ attendance in Hagerstown, Md., which has been the lowest in the South Atlantic League every year since the current ownership group purchased the team after the 2010 season. The team’s home attendance averaged 1,931 in 2011, 1,366 in 2012 and 1,058 so far this year. The average for South Atlantic teams so far this year is about 3,200, according to statistics on the league’s website.
Critics also cite the Fredericksburg region’s relative proximity to three existing professional baseball stadiums—those used by the Potomac Nationals, Richmond Flying Squirrels and Washington Nationals—and suggest that the competition would hurt local attendance.
Bruce Quinn, the majority owner of the Suns, is confident that the team could hit the projected 4,300 number in a new Fredericksburg ballpark. He called B&D’s number “conservative.”
Quinn pointed out that Fredericksburg is a larger market than Hagerstown. He said the team’s current home, Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium, was built in 1930 and lacks the amenities capable of adequately hosting a minor league baseball team or providing a memorable fan experience.
Quinn also said attendance has been hurt by the ongoing discussions about relocating the team. He continues to talk to Hagerstown officials about a new stadium while the Fredericksburg City Council and city staff evaluate the local proposal.
Quinn’s designs for a new ballpark call for a number of amenities that he expects would bring people out, including a year-round restaurant with sports-themed games, a swimming pool, a kids’ zone and more. The stadium would be in Celebrate Virginia South and would be easily visible from the bustling Interstate 95.
WHAT THE DATA SAY
The B&D report notes that newer stadiums that focus as much on providing affordable family entertainment as they do on the baseball being played on the field have drawn significantly better than older parks.
In South Atlantic League stadiums built since 2000, the report shows, average attendance was 4,423 between 2008 and 2012. In parks built before 2000, average league attendance during those five years was just 2,411.
Economic and population data also suggest that Fredericksburg could draw better than Hagerstown, which is in western Maryland near the intersection of Interstates 81 and 70.
Hagerstown is part of a metropolitan statistical area that also includes Martinsburg, W.Va. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, the estimated population in that MSA was about 256,000 as of July 2012, and the unemployment rate as of April was 7.1 percent.
The fast-growing Fredericksburg region is split between the Washington and Richmond MSAs, making local data trickier to come by. According to the B&D report, about 387,000 people live within a 30-minute drive of where the stadium would be located. The local unemployment rate was 4.8 percent in April, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
Hagerstown is the county seat of Washington County, Md., whose population makes up about 60 percent of the MSA’s total. According to census data, Washington County’s median household income is $53,180, and there are 2.53 persons per household.
Conversely, according to the B&D report, the median household income of people living within 30 minutes of the proposed Fredericksburg stadium is $83,726, and average residents per household is 2.95. The latter figure is important, according to the B&D report, because households with children are more likely to attend games at family-focused stadiums.
DEAL STILL UP IN THE AIR
Much still needs to be worked out before attendance at the proposed Fredericksburg stadium could be tested by reality.
The Suns have proposed a deal whereby they would put up $3 million for the city to acquire the land for the stadium. The team would then rent the facility, which would host concerts and many other events other than baseball, for $105,000 a year for 30 years. The team would also split its naming-rights proceeds with the city as well as 15 percent of its net profits above $700,000.
To cover the estimated $1.84 million a year in debt service, a new tax district has been proposed on Central Park and Celebrate Virginia South that could lead to an additional real estate tax on those properties of 32 cents per $100 of assessed value on top of the city’s 74-cent rate.
City officials are currently evaluating all aspects of the proposed deal and stress that the final structure could change significantly, if it’s approved at all. The council will meet with Suns officials at 5:30 p.m. Monday, and a public hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 9.
Bill Freehling: 540/374-5405