Aberdeen stadium needs millions in repairs and improvements, but who pays for them?

As Ripken Stadium ages, repairs and enhancements are under discussion

Aberdeen's Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium needs its railings replaced and repairs made to their supporting concrete, an estimated $1 million project that is only the first of a slew of improvements being considered for the 15-year-old, city-owned ballpark.

Talks have started between the City of Aberdeen and the stadium's sole tenant, Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team owner Ripken Baseball, about cost sharing for the railing job and dozens of other repairs and upgrades needed for the facility.

The railings replacement is a safety issue, Aberdeen City Manager Randy Robertson said, and it's the most pressing of some $3.2 million in repairs and enhancements needed for the stadium over the next 10 years, as identified in assessment completed in July by a regional engineering firm, Duffield Associates LLC.

The nearly 50 improvements listed by the engineer fall into one of three categories: health/safety, operation and maintenance, enhanced fan experience. In addition to the railings replacement, there are dozens of repairs ranging from a few thousand dollars, such as repairing concrete in various places, to $80,000 for seat repairs and $155,000 to insulate the floor on the stadium's club level, which is used for events and parties year round.

How all this will be funded is under discussion and, as Robertson put it, "the devil is in the details."

The railings, made of composite plastic/PVC are warped or cracked in places and the concrete around the railing supports is cracked and deteriorating, so both have to be replaced, "which is why it costs $1 million," Robertson said, associating the problem primarily with the aging of the stadium.

Robertson, who came to work for the city in July, had an introductory meeting earlier this month with Ripken Baseball Senior Vice President Glenn Valis and IronBirds General Manager Matt Slatus, who had just joined the team a day earlier.

More meetings are planned, according to Robertson, who told Mayor Patrick McGrady and members city council last week that they probably should discuss "the way forward" with the stadium when they hold a vision and goals retreat in November.

Cost 'sharing'

The railing replacement project can't wait until then, however, Robertson said, as it needs to be done between the end of the IronBirds season, which concludes on Labor Day, and the start of the 2017 season next June. Bidding for the project closed on Aug. 11, and bids are still being evaluated, according to the city's website.

In 2015, the Maryland General Assembly approved a $500,000 grant for repairs to the stadium. This funding came a year after the legislature approved a $450,000 grant to be used for stadium parking lot repairs.

In an interview late last week, Robertson said the city is obligated to show progress toward using the 2015 state funds, so it's logical to put them toward the railing project. But with the city also having other pressing financial needs, he said, they aren't set on where the rest of the money is coming from for the railings, or for the other $2.2 million in work needed on the stadium.

From its perspective, Ripken Baseball expects the city to pick up the tab for the railings.

"Earlier this year the City of Aberdeen retained an independent engineering firm to examine the now 15-year-old Ripken Stadium and make recommendations on necessary safety and maintenance upgrades," Ripken Baseball's Valis said in an emailed statement Friday. "In partnership with the City, Ripken Baseball reviewed their report that suggested a series of physical improvements over the next decade that will cost approximately $3.2 million."

"Over the next year, roughly $1 million in improvements to safety rails and their emplacement to the concrete is anticipated to take place," Valis continued. "The City will contribute half of the necessary dollars for these improvements and the City and Ripken Baseball worked with the State of Maryland and secured state funding for the other half of those short term costs."

Lease renewal coming

Longer term, Robertson said, Ripken Baseball's current lease on the stadium is coming up for renewal, making it an opportune time for the city and the stadium tenant to re-evaluate their relationship.

The stadium, which opened in 2002 and seats 6,300 for baseball, cost about $18 million to build, with most of the money coming from the City of Aberdeen, aided by state funding and by smaller amounts from Harford County and the Cal Ripken Jr. family.

Although the city owns the stadium and is responsible for maintaining it, Ripken Baseball controls management of the facility, an arrangement previous city leaders willingly agreed to after realizing the city wasn't equipped to handle marketing and booking. In addition to the minor league team and other baseball-related activities, the stadium has hosted concerts, community events, wedding receptions and fundraisers for area nonprofits and politicians. Ripken Baseball gets all booking-related revenue and also controls stadium advertising revenue and naming rights, the latter which it granted to defense contractor Leidos in 2015.

According to Robertson, the annual lease payments by Ripken Baseball are around $60,000 a year. The city also receives state admissions and amusement taxes on games and events where admission is charged. Some of the city's share of a 6 percent county lodging tax that went into effect in March 2015 is being used to pay off bonds the city sold to buy the stadium site and build the facility that were refinanced in 2011, according to city budget documents.

For the current budget, adopted by the mayor and council this spring, the stadium enterprise fund is $713,673, of which $601,000 is for debt service and $112,000 is for operating expense. Revenue listed includes $60,000 from the Ripken Baseball lease, $135,000 from admission taxes and $144,000 in principal and interest for a land lease with Ripken Baseball for the site of its youth baseball complex next to the stadium. Lodging tax revenue, transferred from the general fund, is $374,000 out of the $600,000 the city expects to receive.

Prior to the start of the lodging tax, the city was using general tax revenue to balance the stadium fund, which is why city officials had pushed so hard for the lodging tax. Even so, Robertson noted, the city still spends about $2 for every $1 it takes in from revenue produced directly from the stadium by leases or admissions taxes. With the looming stadium improvements, the "fiscal realities" need to be considered, he said.

Only a portion of the people who come to the stadium for IronBirds games or other events are Aberdeen residents, he explained, and the cost of operating and fixing up the stadium has to be balanced against the residents' relatively modest average income levels and their other service demands

Robertson said there is no question the interests of the city and the baseball team complement each other.

"We're looking for a win-win, not necessarily what exists right now for either party," he said, later adding: "I appreciate having the wisdom and good guidance of the mayor and council and city staff, as well as from the people from Ripken Baseball."

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