When Gov. Wes Moore took his first out-of-town trip on behalf of the state, he wasn’t wooing a Fortune 500 company to move to Maryland or plumping up his resume with an overseas trade trip — the kind of trips typical for an ambitious state executive.
Instead, he was talking baseball.
Moore’s tour Thursday of the Atlanta Braves stadium complex signaled a priority of his seven-week-old administration: furthering its partnership with the Orioles during a critical period as the state seeks a new lease that would commit the team to Baltimore for many years.
And his partner on the trip, new Maryland Stadium Authority chair Craig Thompson, highlighted one of the key transitions in Moore’s takeover of state government after eight years under former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The stadium authority manages the state-owned Orioles and Ravens stadiums downtown. Thompson (who was Moore’s campaign chairman) replaced Thomas Kelso (who headed Hogan’s campaign finance committee) in the unpaid post.
Thompson joined Moore and Orioles Chairman and CEO John Angelos for the visit to Truist Park in Atlanta. Then on Friday night, the governor threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Orioles spring training game in Florida.
In interviews with The Baltimore Sun, Thompson and Kelso said they were optimistic the team will sign a new lease — one that’s been negotiated for years by representatives of the stadium authority and the Orioles — before the current lease extension expires Dec. 31.
“As a trial lawyer, I’m bound by the evidence that I have in front of me,” said Thompson, who took over Monday. “What I’ve seen so far, and the conversations I’ve had so far, suggest that all of the relevant parties are optimistic about getting a deal done. I’ve not heard or seen anything antithetical to that.”
Kelso said he is confident Thompson and “an entire team of people at the Maryland Stadium Authority that are focused on this” will keep lease negotiations on track.
“All of the work that we have done to this point — and the focus and intention of the new governor and new MSA chair — makes me very optimistic that it will get done by the end of this year,” said Kelso, a retired investment banker. “The length of time that it takes to get something done that is meaningful should not reflect on the likelihood of it getting done.”
The governor echoed that theme, saying Friday in Sarasota, Florida, that his administration is “moving fast” to secure a new long-term lease with the Orioles. He said his baseball-focused trip shows that doing so is a priority for him and the state.
Looming over the lease negotiations is the memory of the NFL’s Colts leaving town for Indianapolis on a snowy March night in 1984 following a dispute with the city over improvements to Memorial Stadium.
Thirty-nine years later, Maryland seems perpetually on guard against any other team’s exit.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” said Kelso, who grew up in Aberdeen as a Colts and Orioles fan whose favorite players included Colts icon Johnny Unitas and Orioles Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
Kelso was a businessman in his early thirties and a Colts season-ticket holder when the club left, leaving him in “total shock,” he said.
“Early in my tenure, I had this mindset of not wanting to be the MSA chairman that lost the Orioles,” he said. “But you really have to weigh your fears against the economic realities of what makes sense. No MSA chair is ever in the position of being able to just write a blank check so that they won’t lose the Orioles or the Ravens. We’re a public body.”
Thompson said he embraces the concept of states partnering with professional sports teams, but that there is no “cookie cutter” model.
“When people talk about public-private partnerships, I think the most important ‘P’ is the last one,” Thompson said. “I think the state’s role is to be a partner with private entities, with interested parties, who want to act in the best interest of the citizens. And so, my view is whatever government assistance partnership is involved should be complementary.”
Thompson said he hopes to build a relationship with Angelos, to whom he has been introduced, built on trust. “From my perspective, any next communications with John are still relationship-building. It’s going to be very important that he’s comfortable with me and I’m comfortable with him and that we start to listen to each other,” said Thompson. He worked for the law firm of Angelos’ father, Peter Angelos, earlier in his career but does not have a personal relationship with Angelos or any member of the family.
Kelso helped devise a funding approach, approved a year ago by the General Assembly, under which the authority can borrow up to $1.2 billion to pay for stadium improvements — $600 million each for the Orioles and Ravens. No bonds can be issued without a lease, and the lease must be long enough to pay off the longest-term bonds.
In January, the Ravens signed a new 15-year lease that the football club believes will allow it — with the help of the new funding — to upgrade its 25-year-old, 71,000-seat home field and extend its life.
With that deal done, further attention was focused on the Orioles situation.
The team’s executives have expressed hope that a new deal will not only reinforce their commitment to Baltimore, but guide the revitalization of the area around Camden Yards to attract visitors — and tax dollars — even on nongame days.
Construction of the suburban Atlanta ballpark Moore visited, which opened in 2017, occurred as a huge, adjacent mixed-use development was built called The Battery Atlanta. It includes shops, restaurants and a music venue.
“The idea is to start thinking out loud about what the area surrounding the Orioles complex can look like,” Thompson said Thursday about the inspection of the Atlanta site. “The Battery area and Braves stadium is looked at and admired by some as a model.”
It was Moore’s first trip as governor outside the Maryland-Washington, D.C., region.
The visit was to study “best practices” for entertainment areas around ballparks, Moore said Friday. “We don’t just have a commitment to making sure that the Orioles are going to be in Baltimore for generations to come,” he said. “It’s also about how can we create measurements of economic attention and energy and growth all around the stadium, as well, and so getting a chance to see the different models and what that looks like was really productive.”
The Orioles’ lease with the stadium authority began in 1992 and was to expire at the end of 2021. The parties agreed in February 2021 to extend the agreement for two years through Dec. 31, 2023.
The absence of a new lease — and the team’s Jan. 31 decision to forgo a five-year extension while it pursues a more comprehensive agreement — left some fans worried the team could leave town.
Louis Angelos, John’s younger brother, alleged in a lawsuit last year in Baltimore County that John could relocate the team. The suit — a battle over the assets of Peter Angelos, the ailing, 93-year-old family patriarch — was withdrawn by the parties along with a countersuit in February, and John Angelos has said repeatedly that the club won’t leave Baltimore.
John Angelos declined Friday to comment. In a news release Thursday, the team said the Atlanta visit “was part of the continued collaboration with the Orioles, the state of Maryland, and the greater Baltimore area to redevelop Camden Yards.”
Around the start of spring training last month in Florida, Angelos described Atlanta as “the best example of what’s possible” in creating a “365 live/work/play development.”
”That’s what we all aspire to do. I think the state does. I know the mayor does. [We] can really make a statement for why Baltimore is back and why it’s going to be a big part of the future of the country and thought of in a ‘can do’ way.”
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In September, Angelos wrote a memo to the team’s front office staff saying he intends to sign a new lease. He wrote the lease would highlight “our philosophy of what true private-public partnership should be about.”
Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 and seats about 45,000, was state-funded. M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, was also built with public money and opened in 1998.
“When Oriole Park was built in the early nineties, there wasn’t much resistance to public funding,” said Joel Maxcy, professor of sport business at Drexel University. While economists have since questioned the economic development value to states of subsidizing stadium construction or renovation, “to me, lately, it’s turned back again. We’re seeing teams already replacing [baseball] stadiums that are 25 to 30 years old or about that age in Texas and Atlanta,” Maxcy said.
In Maryland in particular, the professor said, proponents of public stadium funding have “politically a pretty strong case: ‘We don’t want to lose another team.’ People in Baltimore absolutely know the pain of that. I think you’d be vilified if you didn’t stand up for the Orioles and the Ravens now.”
In addition to the pro stadiums in Baltimore, the stadium authority’s responsibilities include oversight of the redevelopment of the aging Pimlico and Laurel Park thoroughbred horse racetracks. That intertwined project has bogged down amid rising construction costs and interest rates, and the timetable has been significantly delayed.
Kelso said the stadium authority’s role is limited to issuing the bonds and overseeing design and construction. The Maryland Jockey Club (the tracks’ owner), the city of Baltimore and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association “will need to come to an agreement with the governor and the legislature on any modifications to the bill necessary to complete the work,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan S. Ruiz contributed to this article.