In a packed school auditorium last week, Charles County commissioners and other officials encountered the full force of Hughesville residents' opposition to a plan to build a minor league baseball stadium in their midst.
Many of the estimated 400 people attending the public forum Tuesday night at T.C. Martin Elementary School let their signs ("Stop the Stadium") and their green T-shirts ("Preserve Hughesville") do the talking. Others, in a flood of public testimony that lasted more than three hours, criticized the project. They said it would destroy the rural charm of their village, bring more traffic congestion and use county and state money that otherwise could help alleviate local problems such as crowded schools.
"We like Hughesville the way it is. That's why we moved down here," said Jim Kreilick, 50, before the testimony began. "Don't jam this stadium down our throats."
Residents said the county's 1997 Comprehensive Plan identified Hughesville as a village that should remain small with "limited employment opportunities." Backers of the 4,500-seat ballpark estimate it would generate 200 to 300 seasonal part-time jobs and 25 year-round positions. There are also plans to bring an office park and an oncology center to Hughesville.
"Why have a Comprehensive Plan if it's not going to be followed?" asked Cheryl Thomas of Welcome, who worked on the committee that helped draft the plan. "I wonder if my efforts have just been an exercise in futility."
Murray D. Levy (D-At Large), in his last official appearance as president of the Board of County Commissioners before being appointed state delegate, said recent residential growth has made Hughesville's village status obsolete and created a prime opportunity for economic development. He said more than 600 homes have been built in and around Hughesville since 2000.
"Events have overtaken the [Comprehensive] Plan," Levy said. "We do not view Hughesville as a rural village anymore."
Many people worried that the notorious traffic tie-ups on Routes 5 and 231 would only get worse with streams of baseball fans, especially because the stadium's opening in spring 2006 would come a year before the Hughesville Bypass is scheduled for completion.
Wes Guckert, president of the Baltimore-based transportation planning firm the Traffic Group, played down the impact the stadium would have on traffic. In the busiest hour of the day, 3,500 to 4,000 cars pass through the intersection of Routes 5 and 231, said Guckert, whose firm was hired by backers of the project. Vehicles associated with the stadium would increase traffic by less than 1 percent, he said. After the Hughesville bypass is built, "the impact [from the stadium] really is going to be negligible," Guckert said.
The stadium plan faces other obstacles beyond the opposition of residents. Although the county and Maryland Baseball LLC each have committed $6 million for the project, the state has not yet agreed to fund its $6 million share. Some members of Southern Maryland's legislative delegation, such as Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's), have expressed reservations until more details emerge.
In an attempt to persuade state officials to approve funding, the Maryland Stadium Authority sent a letter to the state budget secretary asking him to commit $3 million generated from the Camden Yards stadium used by the Baltimore Orioles to fund the Hughesville project. The money would cover the state's cost for the coming fiscal year.
"The net effect would be the state wouldn't necessarily have to come up with $6 million in bond money," said Charles County Administrator Eugene Lauer.
On the county level, project costs are rising. The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative recently backed off its plan to donate the stadium land to Charles and wants to sell the 40 acres at market value, county officials said. No estimate was available for the cost of the land, Lauer said. Other issues, such as how to provide water and sewer service to the ballpark, also have to be solved.
Several people at the meeting spoke in favor of the project, though most of them lived outside the Hughesville area. Supporters of the stadium called it an amenity that would attract high-quality business to the county, offer local entertainment and provide a place for community events such as Little League games and concerts.
"Great counties also have great amenities," said Chris Ripley of Waldorf, who works with a business marketing firm. "This baseball stadium really takes our county to the next level."
But the thrust of sentiment by the vociferous crowd was resoundingly negative. One resident, Alicia Mrozowski, called for a recall measure against the commissioners for not giving the public more say on the project. Maryland, however, does not have recall provisions.
David Kanter, a member of the Preserve Hughesville opposition group, said economic development officials are overstating potential benefits from the ballpark. A study by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development predicted visitor spending would amount to $3.4 million per season, based on an average attendance of 4,000 fans.
At the 10,000-seat Bowie Baysox stadium, the average crowd this year was 4,800, and attendance has fallen 36 percent in 10 years. The benefit from the Hughesville stadium, Kanter said, is an "unrealistic, pie-in-the sky assumption."
"We need updated schools, improved roads and high-quality jobs," said Hughesville resident Doug Wilcox. "We do not need entertainment."