By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008
Twenty-two years ago, construction crews began clearing trees in rural Charles County to make way for a minor league baseball stadium. Today, a very different county finally will hear the cry "Play ball!"
The story of the 23-year effort to bring professional baseball to Southern Maryland dovetails neatly with Charles's evolution, a period that has seen the area morph from sleepy tobacco farming community into sprawling suburb. Many of the newcomers are affluent. Most work outside the county, making it difficult to connect with neighbors.
So when the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs hit the field today for their inaugural game, team members will shoulder the hopes of a county whose leaders want to increase Charles's prominence and build the type of community that newcomers sought when they moved in. Like many formerly rural counties once connected by local businesses, Charles has become a diverse, sprawling suburb where many residents feel detached from their neighbors, a problem county leaders hope they can solve with a 4,500-seat stadium.
Expectations are high: The Bowie Baysox in Prince George's County and the Potomac Cannons (now the Potomac Nationals) in Woodbridge helped spur development in once-desolate areas. A 2004 state report concluded that the Charles stadium could generate $27 million in ticket prices, tax revenue and tourism costs and pave the way for commercial development at the site, which sits in one of the few remaining rural swaths of St. Charles, the massive planned community near Waldorf.
"The state is starting to awaken to Southern Maryland's potential, and I think baseball is an opportunity that will pay great dividends," said Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles). "It's about so much more than baseball."
Longtime Charles Commissioner Gary V. Hodge first proposed bringing professional baseball to the county in 1985, after he read about the minor league team in Woodbridge. Hodge said the team in Prince William County, which had twice the population of Charles but a similar rural character, made him realize the economic and quality-of-life benefits of minor league baseball. Several restaurants and shops had opened near the stadium. Economic development officials were able to use the team to woo new businesses.
At the time, there was little non-agricultural economic development in Charles, and residents frequently complained that they had to travel long distances to shop or dine. So it didn't take much cajoling for Hodge to convince local officials of the need. Within a year, the governor and county commissioners had signed on, along with the Cleveland Indians, who were seeking a new home for their Class A team. A local developer donated land, the league approved the move, a team manager was hired and construction began.
"We just really thought everything was in place," said Peter Kirk, who was then a voting member of the league in which the Charles team would have played. He is now chairman of Blue Crabs' owner, Opening Day Partners.
Then came the 1986 county commissioners' election.
By all accounts, the baseball stadium was rarely discussed on the campaign trail. But the three commissioners running for reelection, who had approved $4.5 million to build a stadium, were criticized for their stance on a proposed airpark and for failing to address the county's rapid population growth. All three were voted out of office.
Within their first few months in office, the new commissioners -- including Levy and Thomas M. Middleton, now a state senator, voted to halt the baseball stadium, paying almost $500,000 in public funds to back out of signed contracts and undo completed work. Construction stopped and the team remained in Kinston, N.C. The donated land has sat empty and is slated for commercial development.
"Oh wow, people were so disappointed," said Ron Provenzano, a longtime Little League coach in Hughesville who is now a Blue Crabs season ticket holder. "At that time, there was really nothing for the kids to do here, so losing that was tough."
Levy said the region was not prepared to pay for a facility or support a team. The county had urgent needs for more roads and schools, he said, not luxury amenities. Middleton agreed, saying the county was struggling to provide such basic services as sewers and paved roads.
But when Hodge proposed creating a team four years ago, both Levy and Middleton became vocal supporters, successfully lobbying their legislative colleagues to fund one-third of the cost.
"Building a stadium in Charles County in the '80s would have been the tail wagging the dog; it just wasn't what we needed to focus on," Levy said. "The difference between then and now is night and day, and now I think it's a wonderful thing for the county."
Some of the difference may have been sparked by the success of the Woodbridge team, as well as four franchises that opened in Maryland: Bowie, Frederick, Salisbury and Aberdeen.
Neighboring Prince George's seized the opportunity posed by Charles's near-miss to lure the Orioles' AA affiliate to Bowie and created a shopping and dining district along Crain Highway surrounding the stadium. The area now has high-end townhouses, chain restaurants such as Chili's and Carrabba's Italian Grill and a major shopping center with a Borders and Target.
"One thing a business is going to look at before moving to a community is the quality-of-life offerings in the community to make it attractive to the employee base, and minor league ball is definitely one of those elements," said Jason Grant, a spokesman for the economic development office in Prince William.
Tax revenue in Bowie has increased, Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said. But the biggest benefit has been less tangible: increased recognition and prestige among state officials.
The Frederick Keys have not generated the same type of development, but officials in that city are beginning to explore ways to add more restaurants and shops. What the team has brought, said Mayor William J. Holtzinger, is an easy answer to the question of what to do on weekends.
Charles is the fastest-growing Maryland county in the region and has one of the 20 highest per-capita incomes in the country at $80,179, but elected officials often feel undervalued by state leaders. Some felt snubbed when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) did not appoint a Southern Maryland resident to his Cabinet. The team could raise their profile.
"We needed a focal point for our community life, and the moment was right for the county and the region to express our self-confidence, pride and optimism," Hodge said.
And as for the nearly quarter-century it took to reach the right moment?
"Baseball is that one sport without a clock, so we don't think of this process as too slow," Kirk said. "It was just a 23-inning ballgame."