In front of a sharply divided audience this week, Charles County officials and representatives from Maryland Baseball LLC made their first public presentation of a rendering of a proposed minor-league baseball stadium in Hughesville and pleaded with opponents of the project to re-examine its intended benefits.
Officials described the 4,500-seat ballpark as a family-friendly venue that could attract businesses to the region and improve the quality of life in Southern Maryland. The county and Maryland Baseball have each committed $6 million for the project and are seeking the same amount from the state. Officials hope to have a team playing in Hughesville as early as spring 2006.
"It is my belief and my hope that the vast majority of citizens in Charles County will view this as a very positive thing and we can move forward with it," said Charles County commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).
But strong opposition to the stadium has arisen in Hughesville, a small crossroads in eastern Charles. Residents have said that the stadium will bring more traffic, crime and development and disrupt the area's rural charm. A handful of members from Preserve Hughesville, an organization of more than 200 people that has sprung up to battle the stadium project, turned out at the news conference Tuesday in Waldorf.
"A lot of people say [the stadium's] a done deal, and that's because it was presented that way from day one," said Donna Cave, the chairman of Preserve Hughesville. "We've had no input at all up to this point."
The two-story, shingled-roof stadium is being designed by Tetra Tech Inc. of Wilmington, Del., which also crafted minor league stadiums in Aberdeen and Salisbury. Maryland Baseball Chairman Peter Kirk said the stadium would have 12 luxury boxes, additional party rooms, and a grass hill ringing the outfield for picnic seating and a playground -- standard amenities, he said, in new minor league ballparks. Once completed, the stadium would be owned by the county.
Kirk said there are proposals to include sandboxes for toddlers, carousels, climbing walls, and skateboard and dog parks around the field. In addition to the 70 home games the team would play at the ballpark, the facility would be open for youth sports, concerts and other events, officials said. Kirk said the design of the stadium and field would accommodate the dimensions needed for football and soccer.
"We're looking at something on a much larger scale here," Kirk said. "This is not just a baseball park. . . . There's nothing like kids going out and . . . playing on a professional field."
Maryland Baseball also launched a contest this week to name the Hughesville team, in the event the stadium becomes a reality. For about two months, people can submit potential team names on the Internet at www.namesouthernmarylandsteam.com, said Jon Danos, the president of Maryland Baseball. The person who submits the winning name will receive lifetime season tickets to the stadium, and there will be a drawing among all who offer ideas for two season tickets for the first year, he said.
"We believe it's important to demonstrate to the community right out of the box that this in fact is the community's team," Danos said.
But part of the community wants nothing to do with a team. Preserve Hughesville wants to maintain the rural character of the community, and members say public funding should be directed more toward new schools rather than outside developers.
On that point, opponents appear to be bucking recent trends in the sports business, where tax revenue has become a dependable resource for new stadium contractors.
Public money "should not be used for a private enterprise," said Cheryl Thomas, a member of Preserve Hughesville. "Just because that's the standard doesn't mean it can't be changed here. . . . It looks to me like it's already been decided and they're going ahead with everything."
County officials and Maryland Baseball executives will gauge public opinion and hope to persuade opponents to reconsider their stance at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 26 at T.C. Martin Elementary School in Bryantown. Levy said the county would work to alleviate specific concerns about noise, lighting, traffic and other infrastructure issues relating to the stadium.
"If it's simply: 'Don't build a stadium,' I don't agree with that," he said. "We're not going to address everybody's concerns."
County Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) added: "It makes good business sense to invest $6 million in an $18 million stadium and then own it once it's finished."
Kirk said he has dealt with similar community resistance in the 12 other minor league stadiums Maryland Baseball has helped build. He plans to convince the residents of Hughesville the same way he has in other neighborhoods.
"It's only in recent times people have talked about economic development," Kirk said. "People have always talked about, 'I wanted more places and times to spend with my family and friends and not spend a lot of money.'
"What I've stressed is: Don't believe us. Talk to people in other communities who have been through what you're going through. Find out what homework they did. Ask them, 'If you could do it all over again, would you?' "
The Hughesville ballpark has the support of the Maryland Stadium Authority, a state agency that has agreed to work as construction manager of the project, a role it held in the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Ravens Stadium, both in Baltimore. Gary A. McGuigan, a project executive with the stadium authority, said "everyone's hopeful" the state will fund the project in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
"It's been well received, but a lot depends on the budget situation," he said. "We will not know for sure [about state funding] until March or April."
Kirk said a team would probably be chosen to play in Hughesville before the end of this year.