Town dreams of ballpark

Officials in Hughesville want to tie the Southern Maryland community's identity in a growing area to a minor-league baseball stadium. But some residents disagree.

October 05, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE - This town at the crossroads of Southern Maryland was once synonymous with tobacco. Known for the months-long tobacco auctions which farmers flocked to, Hughesville is now little more than the intersection of two well-traveled roads that race through vanishing farmland.

But this community of about 1,500 isn't looking back. There has been an explosion of growth here in Charles County and neighboring Calvert and St. Mary's counties - and at the same time a search for a new identity.

Some think it could be tied to baseball.

As officials work on the details of a major-league franchise for Washington to compete with Baltimore's Orioles, Charles County political and business leaders say they are close to their own deal, one for a 5,000-seat minor-league baseball stadium in Hughesville.

The idea was laughed at when it was first raised nearby in the 1980s. If they had built it, no one would have come, officials figured. That's not the worry anymore. There is plenty of interest, and plenty of people, leaders say; in the 1990s, the population in the tri-county area grew by nearly 25 percent and the growth continues.

"This is something we can get behind, we can root for, and we can afford," said Aubrey Edwards, executive director of the county's Economic Development Commission, who is spearheading the project.

Not everyone is cheering the effort to build an $18 million ballpark. A group of neighbors has organized Preserve Hughesville, hoping to do what the name says. And some state leaders feel they have been left out of the conversation, an oversight that could prove a problem because success hinges on a legislative endorsement.

To foot the bill, the county plans to ask the legislature for a third of the money. The county would put up $6 million and owners of Maryland Baseball, which has owned and operated teams and ballparks in the region for more than 20 years, have committed $6 million - and would put up even more to pay for a team to play there. It is how several minor-league stadiums in Maryland have been financed.

Maryland Baseball, which has done this sort of thing before, including in Bowie where the Baysox play, was approached by county economic development officials about 18 months ago. After studying the area, they jumped at the chance.

"Boy, we were just blown away by what we found," said Peter Kirk, chairman of Maryland Baseball. "We don't do these projects lightly. We do a lot of homework."

Attendance at games played by minor-league baseball is at its all-time high, with nearly 40 million fans going through the turnstiles this past season to see 176 teams in 15 leagues affiliated with an organization aptly called Minor League Baseball. Nearly 1 million more attended games this season than a year ago, according to the organization. Hughesville could be a part of that by the 2006 season.

Baseball's popularity

The immense popularity goes beyond strikeouts and home runs, Kirk said. "The majority of people who come to the minor-league games these days are casual baseball fans," he said.

Tickets are cheap, averaging about $5, and much more goes on inside than just a baseball game. The stadiums have playgrounds and picnic tables and lawn seating, where you can spread out a blanket. They have wacky promotions and goofy contests between innings.

"It's a phenomenon all across the country," Kirk said. In Aberdeen, where Cal Ripken Jr.'s IronBirds play in a two-year-old stadium, the games are always sold out.

"It's only partly about baseball," Kirk said. "It's equal parts baseball and family entertainment. There's such a strong desire all over for things that families can do together."

And a new team in Washington wouldn't take away interest from a new Hughesville team, Kirk said. Experience has shown a new team at any level often increases interest in all baseball teams close by, he said.

When the team isn't using the stadium - nearly 300 days a year - the community could use it for youth-league games, meetings and high school graduations, which have to be held elsewhere because there is no venue large enough to accommodate them now.

As the plan stands now, the stadium would be built off Route 5 on 8 acres owned by the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, the power company known as SMECO, which is Hughesville's No. 1 corporate tenant. SMECO agreed in principle to the donation early on, believing there would be little opposition to the plan. Now, President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Slater says the cooperative is "listening to both sides on this" and has made no final decision on the gift.

"We're carefully considering our neighbors' concerns and issues as well as the regional advantages or disadvantages," Slater said. "We live and work here with these same people and are very concerned about the impact on their quality of life."

The quality of life is what concerns those who would suddenly find themselves with a ballpark and its noise and traffic and lights in their back yards.

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