Ripkens question Aberdeen about stadium negotiations delays

Cal Ripken Jr. and Bill Ripken, the brothers who own the Aberdeen IronBirds, say it’s been nearly a year since they started negotiating with the City of Aberdeen on extending the city’s agreement to manage non-baseball events at the ballpark that bears the Aberdeen family’s name.

The Ripkens, along with IronBirds General Manager Matt Slatus, and Ripken Baseball executives Glenn Valis and Diane Erickson, met with editors and reporters from The Aegis Monday afternoon in their office suite at Ripken Stadium, expressing their frustration that a new agreement hasn’t been reached and what they described as a lack of direction from the city.

“I don’t quite understand how the negotiations have gone off [course],” Cal Ripken Jr. said of recent discussions with city officials. “It’s gone in different directions … and it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The Ripkens said that in November 2016, they met with Aberdeen Mayor McGrady and City Manager Randy Robertson in an attempt to renew the license agreement to manage the non-baseball events at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium.

In January, the city of Aberdeen hired third-party, SMG Corp., which also operates Royal Farms Arena, to negotiate a new license agreement. No agreement was reached between the Ripkens and the city.

“It’s been a confusing process for us,” Cal Ripken Jr. said. “It’s gone down a path that’s baffling. What does the city want?”

Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, the IronBirds’ business entity, is the sole tenant of the city-owned Ripken Stadium. The IronBirds, a minor-league team, are a Class A Short Season affiliate of the Orioles.

Tufton currently handles events management, keeps the event revenues and pays the city an annual licensing fee under a 2013 agreement scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

Tufton paid, under the current agreement, a $95,000 license fee for 2017, an increase from the $67,500 fee it paid for 2016, according to a letter recently sent to the city and signed by both Ripken brothers.

Without a new agreement, the city would take over management of non-baseball events at the stadium when the current agreement ends at the end of this year, reverting back to an agreement executed in 2002 when the stadium opened.

McGrady, who is at the center of what the Ripken organization believes are needlessly stalled negotiations, declined comment Monday saying he would provide one by Tuesday.

Then he pledged to provide a statement after a special City Council meeting scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday when agreements between the team and city would be on the agenda.

A three-page statement, signed by McGrady and three of the four City Council members, was released to The Aegis shortly before 6:30 p.m. Councilman Tim Lindecamp was the council member who did not sign it. (A full copy is related to this article.)

Earlier Tuesday McGrady provided an email exchange between he and Slatus dated Friday, Sept. 29 in which he stated he had reviewed messages between Robertson and Slatus from July and August as the parties tried to arrange a meeting but their schedules didn’t match up.

“It’s easy to see how the busy calendars of everyone involved with this important issue could prompt unforeseen delays,” McGrady wrote.

“We absolutely agree the Stadium agreement needs [to be] resolved, and we collectively believe the best way to do that is speaking directly with the Ripkens,” McGrady wrote in the Sept. 29 email.

Slatus replied by email Monday, shortly after the meeting with The Aegis ended.

“Since we have not yet received a response to the proposed License Agreement terms that were shared, and since we’ve addressed all points you asked us to address in our meeting nearly one month ago, our group is unclear how a meeting tomorrow would be helpful or productive for either party,” Slatus wrote. “At this point, both Cal and Bill would appreciate some Council feedback on the proposed terms as a next step forward.”

Tufton delivered a proposal for a license agreement from 2018 to 2022 to City Manager Randy Robertson, the mayor and the City Council in late August.

Team officials propose paying 10 percent of non-baseball event fees to the city in 2018, a $125,000 license fee in 2019, $150,000 in 2020, $175,000 in 2021 and $200,000 in 2022.

Also in August, the Ripkens sent a letter to the mayor and City Council outlining their frustrations and lack of progress on negotiations.

“We never looked at it as the events business,” Ripken said, “We looked at it as helping the community.”

City leaders and team officials have gone back and forth in the last year about funding capital improvements to the stadium, which have costs in the millions of dollars, and who will manage community events at the stadium, with duties such as booking events and collecting fees and rents.

McGrady has said previously, however, the city does not want to be in the stadium events business.

Cal Ripken said his brother, sister and mother, who live in Harford County — his mother, Vi, still lives in their hometown of Aberdeen — have been hearing talk in the community about how Ripken Baseball has been a bad actor in its relationship with the city.

“We feel like we’re being attacked,” the retired Baltimore Orioles player and National Baseball Hall of Fame member said.

He added he doesn’t understand why the Ripken organization is being portrayed that way.

“It’s confusing to me,” he said. “We’ve been community partners.”

Their portrayal in the community has affected the brothers and their family to the point they’ve abandoned their long-held approach to keeping their business private.

“We’ve never put our voice out in the public,” Bill Ripken said. “We always felt we could handle this in-house.”

The funds paid would go to the city’s stadium fund to help defray the cost of stadium maintenance and improvements, plus team and city representatives would walk through the stadium once a month to check conditions as long as the license agreement is in effect.

The license agreement would become void, however, if the city recoups its $3 million investment in the construction of the stadium.

“You’ll recall that once Aberdeen recoups its initial $3,000,000 investment, non-IronBirds events revert back to Tufton’s control, allowing the City of Aberdeen access of the facility for up to fifteen dates for City events,” the Ripkens wrote.

Team officials said they have not heard a response from city officials to their proposal.

Valis said the team has strong relationships with the Harford County executive, the governor of Maryland and Harford’s legislative delegation in Annapolis, as well as strong relationships with prior Aberdeen administrations.

“We’re part of a team,” he said. “We’re part of this community.”

Ripken Baseball, of which Cal and Bill Ripken are the respective president and vice president, runs youth baseball tournaments and training camps at The Ripken Experience Aberdeen facility, adjacent to the stadium, and at similar facilites in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

“Aberdeen was a great place to grow up, family still lives here, and we wanted to be able to create something uniquely local that could be enjoyed by Aberdeen’s citizens for years to come,” the Ripkens wrote in the August letter.

Cal Ripken said he requested Monday’s sitdown with The Aegis in “an attempt to actually get information out and actually get the real story out.”

He said, at worst, “you’re thinking, do they not want us here” in Aberdeen.

Slatus, along with the Ripkens, stressed the license agreement is separate from the IronBirds, who are scheduled to remain in Ripken Stadium at least through the end of the team’s lease in 2022.

Slatus said he thinks the IronBirds “ have a very rosy picture in this community.”

“The event portion of the business is certainly a speed bump that we’re going to figure out a way to get through,” he said.

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