Aberdeen plans to work with national company to sell Ripken Stadium

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The City of Aberdeen will have a “reputable and proven” real estate organization to help it market and sell Ripken Stadium, the city’s mayor said Monday, as controversy continued to swirl around his plan to end the city’s ownership of the facility.

“We will work with a third party purchaser to better use the stadium while creating conditions to grow opportunities in the city and for [the Ripkens] and for the IronBirds,” Mayor Patrick McGrady said near the end of the regular city council meeting.

While McGrady continued to insist a sale would be in the best interests of all Aberdeen residents, a key city business leader warned such a sale would likely force his organization to cut ties with the stadium and the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team.

“It’s the council’s desire that everybody wins in this deal,” he said.

With a sale of the stadium, that isn’t necessarily so, warned Chuck Jacobs, president of Harford Bank, which is headquartered in Aberdeen.

“If the city doesn’t own it and the Ripkens are not involved, Harford Bank will not be part of the plan,” Jacobs told the council. “So, take it or leave it, I’m just telling you, we’re in it for the community, we’re in it for the Ripken initiative and if it’s not there anymore, we’re probably not going to be as active of a candidate and a partner with Ripken.”

Jacobs said Tuesday Harford Bank would no longer have a skybox at the stadium. The bank brings about 1,200 fans to games each year, he said.

“Harford Bank is the only skybox holder since the beginning. I’m proud of that fact, we support it,” said Jacobs, who’s been involved in the stadium since the beginning. “After 2022, it’s over. I’m not inclined to be part of the initiative if Ripken Baseball is not there and the city sells it.”

Jacobs also said he understands that in the beginning the stadium wasn’t a good business deal for Aberdeen, but that’s the past and it’s time for the city and the Ripkens to move forward together.

He said the bank, whose best account is the City of Aberdeen, has been “in it for the partnership, to bring something of value to Aberdeen.”

“It’s value,” he said. “[The city] is not giving it any value.”

City Councilman Tim Lindecamp, who has been at odds with the rest of the council regarding the direction it’s taking with the stadium, said if and when the city has a contract to sell the stadium, it should go to the voters.

“The only way I would vote to sell the stadium is if it met three criteria. It must benefit the city, it must benefit [the Ripkens] and it must benefit the buyer,” Lindecamp said.

The decision to sell the stadium shouldn’t come down to the five city council members, he said, not given its value, which he estimated to be about $20 million.

“I believe it should go to referendum,” he said. “When the city tries to sell one of its major assets … the citizens should have some say in that decision.”

The city and Tufton Professional Baseball, the group headed by brothers Cal Ripken Jr. and Bill Ripken that owns the Aberdeen IronBirds, have been unable to reach a deal on future management of the stadium, particularly regarding non-baseball events and how much money the city should receive from them.

The Ripkens last month turned down an offer from the city to buy the stadium for a dollar – saying they don’t want to own the facility. McGrady and three of the four council members then said they would consider selling the facility to a third party. McGrady also said the city does not want to manage events at the stadium.

The mayor also said the debt service on the stadium creates a financial burden on city residents.

As part of the process to sell the stadium, McGrady said Monday, the firm it hires will have to be capable of nationally marketing the facility.

At the same time, the city will work with its bond counsel to see “if and how” it can transfer the stadium bonds or pay off the debt early, he said. Aberdeen still owes $600,000 a year for the next four years to pay off the debt service, he said.

“We don’t know if it can be done. We’re going to investigate that in the process of marketing the facility for sale,” McGrady said.

The city and council have demonstrated “that we are not efficient utilizers of the facility,” he said. A third party would do a better job of hosting events that would benefit the city, the new owner and Tufton.

“And they can make it a stadium that is used year round effectively for everybody, generate more tax revenue, generate more revenue for the owner and be a better community asset before the stadium wears out,” he said. “Every piece of property has a useful life. Before the thing wears out, we want to see it utilized.”

In 2016, Tufton paid the city a $65,000 licensing fee, which increased to $95,000 this year; Tufton keeps all revenue from non-baseball events.

“Tufton hosts church events, luncheons, job fairs, military shows, all money being paid to them, to Tufton, from the users of the facility,” McGrady said.

In the last five years, he said, the city has spent $5 million on maintenance and bond payments on the 15-year-old stadium, paid for with grans and city tax dollars. During that period, revenue for the city through the admission and amusement tax has declined because of fewer events held there, McGrady said.

The sale of the stadium has generated some interest among possible buyers, McGrady said, declining to provide many details. Hiring a real estate company will help the city get the best deal for everyone, and help it avoid getting a bad deal like it did 15 years ago, he said.

Steve Johnson, president of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, said several parties have expressed interest to the Ripkens, interest that includes building them a facility if they would come to their city or their county, “because they would love to have the worldwide branding of the Ripken name and the economic impact that it brings to our county.”

Johnson presented a 2015 study that says baseball and softball have a $43 million a year economic impact in Harford County, and Aberdeen is a big receiver of that money in terms of its hotels, restaurants and retailers.

He questioned what the negotiations over the stadium and agreement to use it do to the long-term relationship between Aberdeen and the Ripkens.

“I’m very worried we’re going down a slippery slope, and this is a pivotal point for the future of our city,” Johnson said. “I would caution, on behalf of the citizens, on behalf of the business owners and on behalf of the businesses that would like to come here, be cautious.”

Jacobs, the Harford Bank president, said he travels the state and is being asked what’s going on with the stadium, he told the council. His bank has seven branches in Harford County and one in Cecil County, and is one of the few independently owned financial institutions left in the region.

“I don’t have a lot to tell them,” he said. “All I know is, the Ripken initiative is something to be very proud of. It’s taken a long time to get here, but it’s a great event, a great time, it’s family oriented.”

Once the city sells the stadium, he said, it loses all its leverage.

He’s concerned that in five years, the city will have an empty stadium and the Ripkens will be gone.

“We’ll have an empty stadium, the Ripkens will have moved out and here we are stuck with a stadium and no team,” Jacobs said Tuesday. “Other places in the state want Ripken and Aberdeen doesn’t. I’m not sure why that is.”

If the city moves forward with the sale, he urged the city to make sure it gets a good deal. Involved in the first one in 2002 that set up financing and management for the facility, Jacobs admitted it was a bad one.

“We were screaming, we the public, we the people who were trying to put it together, it was a bad deal, and now we’re living with it. We’re stuck with it at least until 2022,” he said.

Jacobs urged the city to get professional help, the right broker, the right lawyer for help with contractual negotiations.

“We are not experts,” he said. “This is a big deal, let’s do it right, let’s get some professional help.”

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