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Fredericksburg to revisit stadium financing

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Efforts are underway to see if challenges in bringing minor league baseball to Fredericksburg can be resolved to keep the project on track for the 2016 season.

This week, Fredericksburg City Councilmen Matt Kelly and Brad Ellis have been working with city staff and in talks with the private partners seeking to build a stadium in the Celebrate Virginia South development.

Discussions have intensified as a September deadline approaches for the partners to file paperwork with Major League Baseball about plans to move the Hagerstown Suns to Fredericksburg.

For more than a year, the owners of the Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, have worked with Fredericksburg officials to relocate the Maryland team here.

The Suns are looking for a new stadium and originally hoped to have one built in Fredericksburg in time for the 2015 season.

With that goal impossible, the new goal is 2016.

But at Tuesday night’s council meeting City Manager Bev Cameron announced that the project is in jeopardy because the partners are looking for help with higher-than-anticipated costs of developing the stadium. The total could run as much as $18 million more than initially estimated.

The Suns’ owners are partnering with Diamond Nation, a New Jersey-based company that operates a facility for amateur baseball and softball camps and tournaments, to create a complex that would include a roughly 4,750-seat stadium and six artificial turf fields.

The partners have financing for a $35 million facility, but rough estimates for the project now have the price in the $53 million range.

For months, the partners have been working for ways to reduce the price tag.

On Friday, Kelly said the city has been trying to help by getting additional estimates from contractors and engineers.

Keith Dilgard, president of Diamond Nation and point person for the stadium partners, said his group has already invested $1 million in the project and would need to spend another $500,000 for the next stage of plans to obtain firmer estimates on the cost.

He said the partners remain committed to Fredericksburg but have what he called a “major hurdle” to clear with the budget-busting estimate of $53 million.

Kelly continues to spearhead efforts to arrange a public meeting in Fredericksburg with the stadium partners. The earliest it could take place is Aug. 25.

The next day, the council will hold a work session on the stadium project and likely take some action at that night’s meeting, Kelly said.

The city has already agreed to a package of tax incentives and roughly $8 million to build a parking lot to serve the stadium.

However, Kelly said the deal could be reconfigured in light of the current cost estimate.

Kelly, Ellis, Cameron and Assistant Director of Economic Development Bill Freehling met on Thursday to discuss the situation.

Cameron said they are “brainstorming to find solutions.”

Establishing a special service tax district that would include Celebrate Virginia South and Central Park remains part of the conversation.

In the original deal worked out with the stadium partners last August and September, a tax district was not included.

However, it offers one way to help cover the higher price tag.

Celebrate Virginia South and Central Park could be targeted for the tax because businesses in those areas would be expected to see the greatest benefit from visitors to the stadium and Diamond Nation.

The increased cost results primarily from greater-than-anticipated costs in dealing with the topography of the site chosen for construction.

The partners have a contract to buy the 38 acres where the U.S. National Slavery Museum was to have been built.

The city Treasurer’s Office was preparing to sell that parcel at a delinquent tax sale to recover unpaid real estate taxes, interest and penalties. However, that sale was postponed last October to give the parties time to finalize the deal.

The sale remains on hold at least through Aug. 26, Treasurer Brenda Wood said this week.

The museum site is hilly but, after other locations in and near Celebrate Virginia South were evaluated, it was judged the best location for the stadium project, Kelly said.

“We did look at other sites and each site had its advantages and disadvantages,” he said.

Among the factors that weighed into the decision were cost to buy the land, wetlands on some sites, future transportation projects and visibility from Interstate 95.

The site can be seen from I–95 southbound as drivers cross the bridge over the Rappahannock River.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972