Aberdeen mayor helps Ripken Baseball make pitch for new Georgia stadium

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett went to bat for Ripken Stadium and its tenant, Ripken Baseball, last week in Augusta, Ga., where city leaders have been worried Ripken Baseball's effort to secure city backing for a new stadium for the minor league baseball GreenJackets could mean financial problems.

Bennett told city officials in Augusta that Aberdeen has a great relationship with Ripken Baseball and is on a good financial track with its stadium, according to an Oct. 3 article in The Augusta Chronicle.

The 10-year-old ballpark in Aberdeen has been a money losing venture for Bennett's city, which owns the facility and leases it to Ripken Baseball, owner of the Aberdeen IronBirds Class A team.

In an attempt to assure Aberdeen residents that nothing unethical happened, Bennett talked about the situation during Monday's city council meeting.

"I would like to make it entirely clear that no city funds were used during that trip," he said at the meeting. "[Ripken] gave me no script and they had no idea what I was going to talk about."

Bennett said he talked for about 45 minutes to a group of 35 people.

"It turned out to be a very nice afternoon," he said.

Ripken Baseball is the Aberdeen stadium's sole tenant and has control over all events at the facility, in addition to the IronBirds games. Orioles Hall of Fame player Cal Ripken Jr. is Ripken Baseball's principal owner. Ripken's company also operates an extensive youth baseball complex next to the stadium on land that is leased from the city.

Bennett said Monday that the Oct. 3 one-day trip to Georgia was paid for by Ripken Baseball, which has its headquarters in Aberdeen and has owned the Augusta team since 2005.

Originally, Bennett said, "I was going down to talk to the Augusta Rotary Club about the relationship between Aberdeen and Ripken Baseball. They have a team there in Augusta and they are talking about building a stadium, and one of the things that were out in the community was that there was just a very lousy relationship between Aberdeen and Ripken Baseball."

Bennett said he also spoke with Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver for about 10 minutes and offered him any help he may need.

"I just said there was a really good relationship. The key is, in a city-private relationship, is that both parties understand what their duties and responsibilities are and that might not have been as well defined in the early days of Ripken Baseball," he said, explaining the city has put together a good memorandum of understanding since then.

"I said we have a great relationship. If we have a problem, we sit down and find out what we can do as partners and get it resolved," Bennett added.

Copenhaver did not return calls Monday.

Opponent questions trip

Patrick McGrady, who is running against Bennett for mayor in the Nov. 8 city election, said the trip seemed a poor choice by Bennett in light of the city council's plan to vote on an ethics ordinance that spells out financial disclosure and lobbying guidelines. The city council approved the new ordinance at its meeting Monday.

"My concern is, as a citizen, it looks very odd that an incumbent mayor would travel to another part of the country to advocate as a lobbyist on behalf of a business that the city does business with," McGrady said Monday afternoon. "I hope it's not true that it looks like he was acting as a lobbyist."

McGrady said if there is some special relationship between Bennett and Ripken Baseball, residents should know about it.

He also questioned Bennett's comments in Augusta that the stadium has not seriously hurt the city's finances.

"I am looking at the budgets from 2005 [on] where we pay $350,000 a year in debt," he said. "The opinion of the people of Aberdeen is it is not a good deal, it was not a good deal..."

McGrady said he just wants to see more transparency in city government.

City Clerk Monica Correll said Monday she does not believe the mayor was required to submit any disclosures about the trip because it was a personal visit and he did not go to Georgia on city business.

Different arrangement

Jeff Eiseman, vice president of sales and marketing for Ripken Baseball, confirmed that Ripken Baseball paid for the trip. He said he did not have its exact cost, but the only expense was the round-trip flight to Augusta.

Eiseman also said the Augusta stadium is expected to be different from Aberdeen's because the state will probably be much less involved in funding.

"Every stadium agreement is different," he said. "The way this [Aberdeen] was funded is very different from the way it was funded down there [in Augusta]."

According to The Augusta Chronicle, Bennett spoke to about 24 Augusta Rotarians, city leaders and media representatives and challenged claims that Aberdeen has had major fiscal problems since the stadium was built.

"We have a great relationship with Ripken Baseball. Ripken Baseball has a great relationship with us," Bennett said, according to The Chronicle. "Things are moving forward, and I expect them to continue to move forward. I would wholeheartedly endorse and recommend Ripken Baseball to you all. With the amount of new energy and new commitment that they can bring to your community, I think you can't go wrong."

The newspaper said Bennett disputed the claim that Aberdeen loses several hundred thousand dollars a year because of the stadium, despite selling out every home game in franchise history.

"As a citizen at the time, I can tell you that the city folks were not that happy with the things that were written. Most of us knew that the things in the article weren't correct," Bennett said. "Yes, the city has debt there. We've always had debt there. It is what it is. We were part of the process of building the stadium and we knew there would be debt and things are moving forward."

Bennett was referring primarily to a July 2007 article in The Baltimore Sun about the stadium's shaky finances, according to a post last week on the website http://www.ballparkdigest.com that also reported on the mayor's visit to Georgia under the headline, "Ripken Baseball: Damage Control in Georgia."

Bennett told the Georgia group that Aberdeen's financial problems are the result of the general economy and not because of the relationship between the city and Ripken Baseball.

"Things were not going that well for the city just because we had folks that were more interested with borrowing money to pay for things that an operating fund should do," he was quoted in The Chronicle. "I think that we've gotten the financial situation of the city straightened out and moving forward very nicely now."

Financial issues

Opened in 2002, Ripken Stadium was built for $18 million with a combination of city, state, county and private funding from the Ripken family. More than $14 million came from the city and state, which both sold general bonds to underwrite the project. Aberdeen also paid $2.6 million for the stadium site, but has since resold some of the surrounding land for net profit. The city also extended sewer service to the site and made access road improvements, while the state also upgraded the nearby I-95/Route 22 interchange.

Harford County initially agreed to spend $2 million toward construction of the stadium, but ended up providing only $1 million, citing budgetary problems at the time. The county also sold bonds to finance its share.

The Ripken family put money into the project, as well, and underwrote the cost of acquiring the IronBirds and moving the team to Aberdeen from upstate New York, fulfilling a condition the Maryland General Assembly imposed that the stadium have a minor league tenant lined up prior to final release of the bond money.

Ripken Baseball also paid for construction of the neighboring youth baseball complex that features several Major League replica ballparks and annually hosts the Cal Ripken World Series for youth teams made up of players age 12 and under from around the world.

According to a report Aberdeen's city finance manager delivered to the Ripken Stadium Management Board in March, stadium operations lost $356,000 in the city's 2010 fiscal year, about half what the city was losing five years ago. The city also paid down its outstanding debt by $398,000, leaving outstanding debt of $5.6 million, according to the report.

The management board, made of citizens appointed by the mayor and city council and a few city officials, was formed to oversee the operation of the stadium on the city's behalf. The board was disbanded last month, City Manager Doug Miller said at the time, because most of its duties "have been given back to Ripken [Baseball]."

The city also has announced plans to refinance the stadium's outstanding debt, which is due to be repaid in full in 2022.

Financial problems have dogged the stadium since it opened, even though, as Bennett noted, most of the 6,500 seats have been sold out since the IronBirds, a Baltimore Orioles affiliate in the Class A, short season New York-Penn League team, began playing about 38 home games a season in June 2002. Those problems predate Bennett, who was elected mayor in November 2007.

The city has a memorandum of agreement with Ripken Baseball giving the private company exclusive use of the stadium in exchange for percentages of the money generated by events and the amusement taxes on some, but not all, baseball ticket admissions.

For years, the revenue paid to the city has not been enough to cover the debt payments, forcing the city to dip into its general tax funds to keep up with those obligations. City officials have blamed the shortfalls, in part, on some rosy financial assumptions by a previous city administration on the tax revenue that would be generated by development around the stadium that for the most part has yet to materialize.

Fred Simmons, who was mayor prior to Bennett, was an early member of the stadium management board before he was elected to city hall in 2005. Simmons felt the stadium was such a financial millstone for the city, he wanted to sell it to Ripken or some other private party to get out from under the debt. Simmons, however, didn't last long enough in the mayor's office to move the city in that direction.

Although his two predecessors tried their best to avoid committing any of the county's money to building the stadium, Harford County Executive David Craig once said in he would be interested in having the county take over ownership of the stadium and then place its operations under the control of a quasi-public revenue authority. In the wake of the recession, Craig has since cooled such talk.

During Bennett's time at city hall, the memorandum of agreement with Ripken Baseball has been modified to make the tenant responsible for more of the stadium's maintenance and repair costs, another potential drain on city finances as the facility ages.

But the question of generating adequate revenue from the arrangement with Ripken Baseball to fund the cost of stadium depreciation and debt has dogged Bennett, just as it did his two predecessors, Simmons and Doug Wilson, the latter who was mayor when the stadium was constructed and whose administration made some of the critical earlier financial assumptions that haven't panned out.

Bennett hoped to win passage of a countywide hotel room tax legislation from Annapolis last winter that would have produced some additional revenue designated to repaying the stadium debt. The plan faltered, however, when the city balked at agreeing to a tax break for a retirement community planned near the stadium, and the sponsor of the room tax legislation withdrew the bill. The developer of the retirement community has also pulled up stakes and put its property up for sale.

The city and Ripken Baseball also have gone back and forth on the possibility of charging for parking at the IronBirds games, which has been free since the stadium opened. The city previously identified parking as a potential revenue source, but Ripken officials say they are opposed to charging for parking, and the stadium agreement appears to give them the final say on that issue.

According to the GreenJackets website, the team, a San Francisco Giants affiliate, plays its 70 home games in Lake Olmstead Stadium, a facility built in 1994-95 that has a seating capacity of 4,822.

The website notes the stadium's capacity is the third smallest in the 16-team league. The website also notes a number of improvements have been made to the facility since Ripken ownership took over the baseball team prior to the 2006 season.

Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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