By Mac Carey
The distinctive swirled H and the sly face of Fetch the mascot have been common sights on baseball caps and car bumpers in Northern Virginia for half a decade. It seems the Loudoun Hounds Baseball Club has everything a minor league team could want: an enthusiastic owner, an adorable mascot, a devoted fan base. Everything, that is, except a stadium and an actual team.
Despite an auspicious inaugural FanFest in 2011, in which nearly 10,000 fans showed up for autographs and to meet Fetch, the team has been plagued with problems ever since. Locals were promised an opening day in 2012 and then again in 2014. The Hounds said 2015 was a possibility, but the year has come and gone without any progress.
Once the strongest selling point for One Loudoun, a mixed-use development between Route 28 and Route 7, the Hounds’ stadium is still the stuff of dreams six years after zoning approval. The Hounds’ owner, Robert “Bob” Farren, 62, the founder of VIP Sports and Entertainment and the driving force behind the Hounds, stepped down this past fall as head of operations. He faced a lawsuit from One Loudoun’s developers while also struggling with medical issues. VIP is now dissolved.
The team was the brainchild of Farren, a Waterford businessman with a history in insurance. He began making calls in 2008 about starting a team. A charismatic salesman with a million-dollar idea in a desirable demographic, Farren quickly gained both political and financial support. (Farren did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.) Scott York, the former chairman of Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors, was one of the strongest supporters. In an October 2012 interview with the Loudoun Times-Mirror about the team’s switch from the Kincora development north of Dulles Airport to One Loudoun for its stadium’s location, York stated, “It was important for us to get this going and do what we can to be able to keep the stadium here in the county.”
After the location change, everything seemed set to move forward. The board helped to push through zoning exemptions for the stadium, assuaged the traffic and noise concerns from One Loudoun’s neighbors and promised road improvements. VIP set up an ambassador program in which local fans volunteered to publicize the new team to their friends. Over 60 investors put money into the operation. VIP obtained a $3.25 million bank loan.
However, while there was a strong fan base and political support, one major piece was missing: public funding. The Board of Supervisors might have been an avid supporter of the project in theory, but it wasn’t backing it up with any funds from the county’s increasingly tight budget. Cliff Keirce, planning commissioner for the Broad Run District, in which both Kincora and One Loudoun are located, says, “The county thought it was great to get the stadium, but without taxpayer money—that’s the tricky part.”
Farren believed he had enough in private financing. But VIP quickly went from raising $13 million to having only $617.63 left by 2014. According to more than one source with close ties to the project, Farren used some of this money for personal expenses like luxury car purchases and country club memberships, in addition to his $250,000 annual salary. A former investor says, “The real unfortunate part is investors. Every single investor did this to be involved in [the] community and to bring sports to NoVA.”
Millions more went to marketing, paying for architectural services and the payroll of VIP, which at its height had a dozen employees. Additional funding was expected, but Keirce says, “Financing never happened. It all fell through.” Farren claims that if he had received government funding, the stadium and team would have come to fruition at One Loudoun.
Everyone agrees that Farren’s ultimate intentions were sincere and that he did believe, and still believes, that the team is a possibility. But intentions weren’t enough. VIP soon imploded. One Loudoun became tired of waiting and filed a suit in August 2014, claiming Farren and VIP did not keep their end of the deal.
On Feb. 23, 2016, the Loudoun County Circuit Court dismissed the suit after One Loudoun and VIP reached an agreement. Bill May, the vice president of Miller and Smith and managing director of One Loudoun, is not allowed to comment on the case as part of the settlement, but he did say they “are back at square one” in regards to building a stadium at the location.
For his part, Farren remains ever the optimist and has switched his sights to Kincora, where the permit process had begun years ago. No matter the location, the problem of financing remains. “There’s still an approved stadium site at Kincora, but [they] will still need to get funding,” Keirce says.
Christopher Kelly, director of marketing for TriTec Real Estate, the developer of Kincora, states that “Kincora has not worked with the Loudoun Hounds for a very long time. On the Kincora site we have an approved stadium, which has drawn interest from several groups. However it is too early in discussions to comment on anything.”
Things aren’t looking good for Farren to be the one to see the team through. In February, Farren’s Waterford home was listed for foreclosure in The Washington Post. He is being sued by the commonwealth for $80,000 in back pay for former VIP employees. VIP was also sued by Maryland-based Eagle Bank for defaulting on its $3.25 million loan.
There is still the possibility of someone else stepping in to make the team happen. The brand itself is not necessarily tarnished. The Hounds’ name and logo are owned by the investors, and the board remains positive about the idea. “The stadium is a great, great amenity—a lot of uses you could get out of it other than just sports, as simple as high school graduations and concerts,” Keirce says.
Loudoun County, as one of the richest counties in the nation, is ripe for a team. “We have a good demographic for it, and the Metro line coming out here makes it easier to get out here,” Keirce says.
One Loudoun had said it could explore new options for a sports complex when the longstanding legal dispute with VIP and Farren was resolved. “We’re certainly going to do everything we can possibly do to get a stadium built and get a minor league baseball team and soccer team here,” May says. He goes on to caution “[It’s] not going to happen soon.”
As the stadium is delayed, anticipation becomes dulled. No one is more disappointed than local families. Middle schoolers who excitedly attended the 2011 pep rally are now heading off to college. Northern Virginians remain hopeful but have learned not to hold their breath.