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Likely stadium management firm reaffirms commitment to Aberdeen, Ripkens

Athan Sunderland, CEO of the Huntley Sports Group, says his company is committed to the success of Ripken Stadium and the City of Aberdeen, as controversy continues to swell around the city officials plan to give Sunderland’s company control of the stadium’s management.

“I appreciate our collective efforts to continue to work together to create the right document with the right language that works for all parties involved,” Sunderland said in an appearance before Mayor Patrick McGrady and the City Council Thursday evening.

Sunderland read a letter from him and Kevin Huntley, the group’s president, into the record during the final public comment period of the council meeting. It was addressed to the city officials, Aberdeen residents, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC – owner of the Aberdeen IronBirds and to the Ripken family.

He spoke after city officials announced they were delaying a final vote on an agreement that would give Sunderland’s company control of managing all non-basball events at the city-owned stadium, as well as de facto oversight of the IronBirds lease on the facility.

The agreement would also give Huntley Sports Group, or HSC, first refusal rights to buy the stadium if the city decides to sell it, which is a stated goal of McGrady and a majority of the City Council.

The agreement was on the agenda to be voted on Thursday, but it was pulled after city leaders learned Wednesday that the city attorney and its bond counsel still have concerns about the status of the tax-exempt bonds used to finance construction of the 16-year-old stadium in relation to the proposed agreement with HSG.

City Manager Randy Robertson said he was told “it would be best to table this issue for the time being.”

The bound counsel’s concerns over the the bonds on which the city still owes approximately $2.3 million, as well as “some of the language” in the draft agreement were the subject of a closed session with the mayor, City Council and City Attorney Frederick Sussman following the regular council meeting, McGrady said afterward.

“We’re working through them actively,” he said of the bond counsel’s concerns.

City leaders have been at odds with Tufton Professional Baseball in recent months over who would manage non-baseball events at the stadium going forward after an agreement giving Tufton that responsibility expired Dec. 31.

Former Baltimore Orioles Bill and Cal Ripken, who grew up in Aberdeen, are the majority owners of the short-season minor league IronBirds. The team’s lease on the stadium runs through 2022.

During the fall, city officials rejected an offer from Tufton to continue managing non-baseball events. Tufton also declined an offer from McGrady to take control of stadium ownership by assuming responsiblity for paying off the remaining bond debt.

The city has prepared an agreement with HSG to manage non-baseball events for a $10 annual fee and 50 percent of the company’s net income each year — the remainder goes to the city. HSG is a Towson-based partnership of Pinkard Properties, MFS Advisors, of New York, and the late Dave Huntley, a famed lacrosse player and coach who died in December.

Sunderland said he is aware of the bond counsel’s concerns. He said he has been working in recent weeks with the city and Tufton on a “win-win solution.”

“A win-win solution is one that is focused on supporting the long-term combined success of the stadium, the City of Aberdeen, Ripken Baseball operations and Huntley Sports Group,” he said, reading from his letter.

“We are committed to the city, we are committed to our continued work with the Ripkens and Tufton Baseball, and we are committed to the people of Aberdeen to keep their economic engine growing by investing significant time, money and resources into what will be an even brighter future,” Sunderland continued.

The proposed sale of Ripken Stadium and the disagreement between the Ripkens and the city has prompted a significant outcry from Aberdeen residents and business leaders, as well as Harford County tourism officials, since the stadium and IronBirds are a major tourism asset for Harford.

Gregory Pizzuto, executive director of the Visit Harford! nonprofit tourism development organization, was in the audience Thursday, but he declined to give his views during the public comment session despite an invitation from McGrady.

“I just came to observe,” Pizzuto said.

Ryan Burbey, an Aberdeen resident and president of Harford County’s public school teachers’ union, dropped by as the mayor and council members returned from their closed session with the bond counsel.

Burbey spoke with McGrady regarding his concerns about selling the stadium and the risk of it failing under another owner.

“The last thing we want is an empty monument to someone else’s business,” Burbey said.

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