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Professional baseball could return to Hagerstown, Md., under local ownership

Mike Lewis
Herald-Mail Media

Professional baseball could return to Hagerstown, Md., under local ownership and in a new, multi-purpose sports facility, according to plans outlined Tuesday.

Maryland State Sen. Paul Corderman, R-Washington, told the Washington County Commissioners that the new team and new facility represent an "exciting opportunity" to spur more investment and build on the success of the city's first Urban Improvement Project. That effort, among other things, expanded and renovated The Maryland Theatre and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

He said he is hoping the Maryland Stadium Authority will take the lead on managing and funding the facility. A cost estimate is not yet available, he said.

Last year the community lost the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A affiliate of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals, under a reorganization that eliminated several minor league teams. The Suns played in city-owned Municipal Stadium.

On Tuesday, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Tuesday announced it has granted conditional approval for a new member team in Hagerstown.

Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md.

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Howard "Blackie" Bowen, CEO and chairman of the board of Ewing Oil Co., would lead the ownership group. He said he's already started talking with others about joining him.

"Outside ownership doesn't work the same way local ownership does," he said.

"I want people who are committed to this community, who care about this community, who do business in this community and who will support this project by buying billboards or skyboxes or season tickets, entertaining their employees and customers at the ballpark," Bowen told the commissioners.

The conditional approval is subject to several terms, including constructing a facility that meets or exceeds the league's standards, with the capability to host other sports and entertainment events.

Bowen is working with elected officials and civic leaders.

"What we're buying here is something that will last the next 100 years. ... That's the most exciting thing to me," he said.

The team would be responsible for maintenance and repairs, he said.

Corderman, Bowen and representatives of the league spoke at the commissioners' meeting and were scheduled to make a similar pitch to the Hagerstown City Council Tuesday afternoon.

Bowen said he learned about the Atlantic League a couple of years ago while visiting his college roommate, Frank Boulton.

Boulton is the league's founder and CEO. He also owns the Long Island Ducks, who are members of the league, and the two former roommates went to a game.

"I was blown away," Bowen said. He said the team plays in a "nice facility" filled with people "having nothing but fun."

Boulton said the league often works with Major League Baseball, such as testing proposed rule changes. The league has sent more than 1,000 players to Class AA, Class AAA and the majors, he said.

Hagerstown would join the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, based in Waldorf, as one of two Atlantic League teams located in Maryland.

Eric Menzer, president of another league team, the York (Pa.) Revolution, said the team and a new stadium have sparked more than $130 million in private investment in that city.

PeoplesBank Park in York seats 5,200 people for baseball, according to the team's website. It hosted its game in 2007.

But the facility hosts more than baseball.

"We will host 200 events in our facility this year," Menzer said. "There's no end to what you can do with these ballparks."

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He said the $31 million cost was split basically three ways. A little more than half came from state funds. Another $9 million was raised by the team from selling the naming rights and skybox seating. And two local philanthropists "made significant gifts."

Boulton said the stadium needs to be properly sized.

"You have to look at the market and build to your market," he said.

At the end, Corderman said he wanted to make sure there were no objections from the commissioners.

Commissioner President Jeff Cline said he heard neither support or opposition from the commissioners, and said they wanted more details as plans become more firm.

"I think we're all going to keep an open mind," he said.

Mike Lewis is a Gannett reporter based in Hagerstown, Md.