If extensive improvements aren’t funded at Municipal Stadium, it looks like the Hagerstown Suns (Low Class A; Sally League) will end up moving — but a final destination is far from set.
The Suns ownership, virtually since taking over the team, has been lobbying for improvements to the ballpark. Indeed, a $10-million improvement plan for Municipal Stadium has already been approved by the city of Hagerstown but is awaiting county approval. In the meantime, ownership in the form of Bruce Quinn, Sally Quinn, Tony Dahbura and Mitesh Kothari (who bought the team for $6.8 million in 2010) have quietly been shopping the team for a move. A Low Class A team without a long-term lease is a desirable quantity. For instance, the Suns franchise was identified as a team eyed by the New York Yankees for purchase and a future move to Ramapo, N.Y. in 2013 (it would have been the back end of a deal that had the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees playing the 2012 season in Ramapo, replaced by a Sally League team the following year and beyond). That deal collapsed for various reasons, including some territorial concerns.
But Ramapo hasn’t been cited as the only potential future home of the Suns: Kinston and Wilmington have also been floating around as future homes of the team. It’s no secret Cam McRae, the former lead owner of the Kinston Indians (High Class A; Carolina League), has been casting about for a replacement now that the K-Tribe franchise has moved to Zebulon; he decided to pass on putting a summer-collegiate team at Grainger Stadium this season, which certainly indicates he’s looking at affiliated ball at some point in the future. When there was a more serious interest in bringing affiliated ball to Wilmington, Hagerstown was discussed as being a prime candidate for a move.
And then there’s Winchester, Va. Though Winchester officials aren’t saying anything to the press, it’s a matter of public record that the city — just across the state line from Hagerstown — has hired Brailsford & Dunlavey to research the viability of a new ballpark in that city. Now, we’re not talking the world’s greatest market: its population in 2009 was 26,322, its median income is lower than the rest of Virginia, and it’s the county seat of a relatively small county (Frederick County’s population is only 78,305, but it is growing). Indeed, to reach a 100,000 population within a decent driving distance of any Winchester ballpark, you need to include the entire county and all of Martinsburg, W.V., some 25 miles up I-81, as well as rural residents in the Martinsburg area. Forget expecting any Hagerstown fans to support the team after a move: It’s 45 miles from Hagerstown to Winchester, a trip that will take upwards of an hour on a typical game night, so it’s not realistic to expect many to make the trek. (Indeed, we’re guessing some of those Hagerstown fans will switch their allegiances to the Frederick Keys, a much easier drive from Hagerstown.) There not a very compelling economic argument to moving a team to Winchester; it’s more probable the city is more suited to host a summer-collegiate team in terms of population and the city’s ability to fund a facility.
Now, we find all this talk fascinating, especially given the Suns’ history. We’ve heard from more than one insider about Hagerstown’s finances in very complimentary terms: a combination of cheap rent, a lean front office and youthful hustle made the team very profitable for many, many years. That the new ownership sees it necessary to be seeking public assistance of some form or another, either in Hagerstown or elsewhere, isn’t a favorable commentary on the franchise. But then again: the team is probably more valuable in terms of a sale with a new ballpark in Winchester than with an old ballpark in Hagerstown as things stand right now, as there’s nothing that drives up the value of a team like a new ballpark. For Hagerstown and Washington County, the decision must be made whether or not to keep the Suns. But once affiliated ball leaves Hagerstown it will never return — we’re pretty sure the Keys ownership will block any other team coming in on territorial concerns — and that’s something to be considered in the discussion.
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