Discussion postponed on Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium management agreement

The City of Aberdeen has an agreement in principle to give Huntley Sports Group control of non-baseball events at the city-owned Ripken Stadium.

The agreement was scheduled to be on the agenda for Thursday night’s City Council meeting — a makeup of the meeting canceled Monday because of the ice storm — but Mayor Patrick McGrady said Thursday afternoon that discussion has to be postponed.

The city’s bond counsel had some concerns about the city’s obligations as far as the stadium and its agreement.

“We have to postpone action until we can satisfy the requirements of meeting our municipal tax-free obligations,” McGrady said.

He hopes it will be soon, and the council had planned to talk to its bond counsel Thursday night during a closed session, he said.

The “Event Management Agreement for Ripken Stadium, Suggested Action: For Approval” will be on a later city council meeting agenda.

The nine-page agreement outlines the city’s current rights to use the stadium under a “concession agreement” it signed in 2000 with Tufton Professional Baseball LLC that gave the city the right to control and manage all non-baseball activities at the stadium. Tufton owns the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team and is controlled by retired Baltimore Orioles players brothers Cal and Bill Ripken.

Under the agreement up for consideration, the city “assigns to HSG [Huntley Sports Group] the overall administrative overview and control of the site to the extent the same has been granted to the city” by the prior concession agreement.

Huntley Sports Group’s principal, Athan Sunderland, is listed as an executive vice president with Pinkard Properties in Towson, a commercial real estate firm. HSG takes its name from David Huntley, a Baltimore area lacrosse legend, who was to have been a partner before his sudden death while coaching a lacrosse clinic in December.

The partnership claims to have been involved in the development of youth sports facilities, primarily one in Delaware, but has no prior events management experience.

The city will agree to assign to HSG “the exclusive rights and responsibilities to schedule, use and manage the site on all days that are not available for [baseball — Tufton] events … and would otherwise be available for use by the city for city events and community activities ...”

The term of the new agreement with Huntley Sports Group, or HSG, is one year, commencing retroactively to Jan. 1, renewable automatically annually until the parties agree to terminate as provided in the agreement.

Financial terms include that the city and HSG will agree to an annual budget for operating the facility, the city will pay a nominal management fee to HSG and HSG will keep 50 percent of its net income, with the city receiving the other 50 percent.

HSG also would be granted a right of first offer to purchase the stadium should the city decide to sell the facility. HSG could not assign that right, however, according to the agreement.

HSG also would be responsible for indemnifying the city for any claims and liabilities, including personal injury or death, arising from HSG’s use of the stadium in accordance with its city agreement.

Huntley would be required to furnish the city with “at least biweekly reports” regarding its activities and either party can request timely conferences to discuss matters related to the site.

“HSG’s rights under this subsection include engaging with Tufton on matters relating to the parties respective rights and obligations under the concession agreement,” according to the proposed agreement between HSG and the city.

The agreement also maintains the city’s right to use the stadium’s parking facilities, without cost, for training or other city related activities on days when IronBirds or HSG events are not scheduled.

“HSG shall schedule, use and manage the site pursuant to and in accordance with the city’s rights and obligations ...” the agreement states.

HSG would also be responsible for ensuring that “Tufton adheres to and fulfills its duties and responsibilities under the concession agreement” and for consulting with the city if HSG “believes Tufton is not fulfilling its duties and responsibilities under the concession agreement.”

In the event that should happen, HSG and the city would jointly “develop a plan for addressing HSG’s concerns and any Tufton defaults.” HSG would then be responsible for implementing such a plan unless the city and HSG agree otherwise.

The agreement also gives the city the right to reject HSG’s scheduling or use of the stadium site, if the city believes there would be “clear and identifiable harm to the stadium or other parts of the site.” Singled out are events, other than seasonal leagues, tournaments or festivals, occurring “over three or more consecutive days.”

Non-baseball events at the 16-year-old stadium had previously been managed by Tufton/Ripken since the mid-2000s; however, city officials, led by Mayor Patrick McGrady, have sought other management options with an ultimate goal of selling the stadium because they claim it costs city taxpayers too much money.

The city and Tufton signed a one-year management deal in December 2016 under which Tufton continued to book non-baseball events in 2017 and paid the city $95,000. The agreement expired Dec. 31, after the city rejected an offer from Tufton to continue managing for 2018 at a nominally higher payment to the city.

Tufton/Ripken has said it does not want to own the stadium, even though McGrady offered the facility to them for $1 and assumption of remaining debt, approximately $2.3 million, although that figure has been subject to conflicting reports.

None of the talks with HSG directly impact the IronBirds use of the stadium, which is covered by a separate 20-year lease with the city that expires in 2022; however, instead of dealing directly with the city as has been the case previously, the IronBirds ownership would deal with HSG, as laid out in the management agreement.

The back and forth with the city over future stadium management caused the Ripken brothers to say in media interviews last fall that they felt unwanted in their hometown where they run a youth baseball program that brings thousands of visitors to Aberdeen annually, in addition to the IronBirds game crowds.

The city’s plan to sell the stadium and bring in HSG for management has been criticized by some prominent local residents and outright opposed by the Harford County Chamber of Commerce and Visit Harford!, the county’s designated tourism agency.

Both groups have urged the city publicly to continue dealing with Tufton/Ripken, fearing more alienation of the Ripken brothers and their baseball enterprises.

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