Neighbors remain skeptical of ballpark in their backyard

Neighbors remain skeptical of ballpark in their backyard

HAGERSTOWN — A row of houses on Hagerstown's Summit Avenue overlook the construction for the new baseball stadium. (Bridget Byrne/The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism)

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By NOAH FERGUSON and DYLAN MANFRE

HAGERSTOWN — Hagerstown city officials and business owners are excited about the new minor league ballpark that’s under construction, but not all of its neighbors are cheering about it.

Residents near the $70 million project – which leaders hope will revitalize this old city of 43,000 – are worried about traffic, congestion, lights and noise around the new site. And many don’t care about baseball.

“They should have rebuilt it but kept it at the same location [as Municipal Stadium],” which was not downtown, said Autumn White, a seven-year resident of Hagerstown. “This is around too many buildings …. Where are [people] even going to park?”

Along Summit Avenue, one of the ballpark’s boundaries, dump trucks, excavators, pipes and piles of dirt have taken over. Old city hall, a popular car wash, and a laundromat used to be nearby. They were all razed.

Harold Wills, a Summit Avenue resident, is a critic of the new stadium.

“That ballpark is totally unneeded, completely unwanted,” said Wills, who has lived in Hagerstown for 78 years. “It is going to be a huge roadblock and the final destruction of downtown Hagerstown.”

Wills stood before former Mayor Emily Keller and the City Council last fall to publicly express his grievances about the ballpark and how it would affect his home.

“I have been told no matter what aspect of the architectural drawing that that is definitely going to be left field and I’m going to have a gigantic wall facing me,” Wills told the mayor and council.

City Administrator Scott Nicewarner, who lives a few blocks away from the new ballpark, says he is looking forward to games there. And he’s not surprised to hear complaints about it.

“You’re going to have your naysayers and those that are going to complain even if you know their street in front of them was paved in gold and they can take chunks of it if they wanted to,” Nicewarner said. “We’ve gotten some concerns about parking up on South Prospect Street, which is the next street up from Summit. … so we’ve got to deal with that. … I don’t think it’s going to be a major concern.”

Nicewarner believes once the ballpark opens “those people are going to run out of reasons to complain.”

Douglas Zaruba is a Summit Avenue resident who doesn’t like baseball, though it will be played across the street from him starting next April or May.

“It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever watched,” he said of the sport. “You stand around for 20 minutes, nothing happens, and then 10 seconds of chaos.”

He said he would have been fine with the ballpark had it been placed in the location of the old Municipal Stadium.

The yet-to-be-named ballpark will be home to an expansion team from the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. It will be minor league baseball’s first time in the city since the Hagerstown Suns played at Municipal Stadium in 2019.

The Suns were slashed the following year when Major League Baseball consolidated the minor league system eliminating 40 teams. The stadium will be a multiuse facility that can host concerts and events in addition to baseball.

“We would not take our children to a ballgame”

But Zaruba isn’t impressed.

He watched his coffee ripple as he sat at his kitchen table late February morning. He felt his entire house shake and later noticed a large crack in the wall of his painting studio.

His late-19th-century home is on a slope across the street from the construction site. The workers started their jackhammering on bedrock, which Zaruba says caused the vibrations.

He says he spoke with the mayor and the developers but “it’s like talking to a duck,” he said. “They’re going to look at you and then walk away.” He said he couldn’t find 10 people who favored the project.

Kelly Rajahpillay has lived in Hagerstown for 22 years and works at the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown on South Prospect Street, a little more than a city block from the ballpark site. She sees the impact of drugs and homelessness on her drive to work each day and believes that the city should focus on uplifting individuals in need rather than building a ballpark downtown.

“Our town is in dire need of realigning itself. We’re just putting Band-Aids” on the problem, Rajahpillay said. “I’m not seeing the progress. It’s like two steps forward, 10 steps back.”

Rajahpillay also worries about traffic. She already sees increased congestion when The Maryland Theatre puts on shows and said the traffic would be “crazy” if the theater and the ballpark were being used simultaneously.

Potomac Towers, a high-rise apartment building for older residents, overlooks the construction site, where baseball will be played starting next April. On a recent weekday, Richard Livengood, 75, wore a blue NASCAR hat as he went out the door of the apartment building. He said his only sports interest is NASCAR.

Sean Griffith, the Hagerstown Housing Authority’s executive director, said the Potomac Towers residents have “mixed emotions” regarding the ballpark, with some residents clamoring for baseball’s return and others worried about the ramifications of the ballpark.

“I think some are really excited, you know – big baseball fans are excited to have a stadium right across the street,” Griffith said. “Others are concerned about possible traffic issues and maybe noise concerns.”

He added that the Housing Authority has been in contact with the team owners who said that they are open to talks with residents about the impact of traffic and noise.

Security near the ballpark will also be a topic for discussion among neighbors.

Corinna Nelson of nearby Greencastle has owned a skin care center in Hagerstown for 14 years. “I don’t have children but if I did have children we would not take our children to a ballgame and then walk to a parking lot in Hagerstown at night,” Nelson said. “I’m not saying you’d get murdered, but you don’t need to get mugged either. I don’t need to get roughed up and robbed. The area has just become less and less safe.”

City leaders acknowledge the area has an array of challenges and that it has become a gathering place for people “who are dependent on social services for their income,” said Dan Spedden, president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“There’s so much poverty and crime and drug abuse in the downtown area now that people perceive it to be unsafe,” said Spedden. He foresees change when fans begin coming downtown for ball games. “You’re going to see storefronts filled up with businesses. You’re going to see empty buildings with upscale apartments. The whole scene changes,” Spedden said.

Recent statistics reveal that crime rates in Hagerstown are the highest in Washington County. However, reported crimes in the city have fallen, according to information contained in the Uniform Crime Reports from the Maryland State Police. From 2010 to 2020, Hagerstown experienced a decrease of nearly 30 %, according to the report.

Hagerstown Police did not return repeated requests for comment for this article.

Leaders like Spedden and James Kercheval, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, maintain that the ballpark will be a catalyst. When grand slams are being hit, they believe, the neighborhood will turn around.

“Any good community is diversified. You have people in low, middle, and upper-income levels all in the area and they can learn and feed from each other,” said Kercheval. “That’s what we want to see.“

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