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Bad deal for Aberdeen [Editorial]

Shortly after he arrived from Alaska in the summer of 2016 to take over day-to-day management of the Aberdeen city government, Randy Robertson remarked that he did not realize part of his new job included managing a municipal stadium.

At the time, Robertson had been presented a list of $3 million in needed fixes and improvements that had been drawn up for the then-14-year-old Ripken Stadium by an engineering firm employed by the city prior to his arrival.

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All of the work needed was legally the responsibility of the city, although negotiations ensued with the stadium’s principal tenant, Tufton Baseball LLC, as the most pressing of the items on the list, replacement of railings and their supports, was also the most expensive at approximately $1 million.

Tufton, principally owned by brothers Cal and Bill Ripken, Aberdeen natives, former stars for the Orioles and members of what is arguably the city’s most prominent family, said the repairs and improvements many of which were needed to enhance fan experience, were the city’s responsibility under the lease Tufton signed in 2000 that brought minor league baseball to Aberdeen in the form of the Tufton-owned IronBirds — the reason for building the stadium in the first place.

It was pointed out to city officials, Tufton/Ripken had lobbied state legislators for a grant of almost $500,000 to be put toward that long punch list. The railings were installed with the city footing the majority of the bill, but prior to the last IronBirds season, Tufton paid for a new scoreboard and video screen in center field, which the organization said cost $1 million.

The stadium and its expenses and its management are not, in our opinion, the one-way street that city officials like Robertson and Mayor Patrick McGrady have characterized it, with Aberdeen residents picking up all the bills for the Ripken brothers and their profit-making baseball enterprises. This is the excuse that has been parroted by McGrady and Robertson and some City Council members to justify getting rid of Tufton as the manager of non-baseball events for the stadium and, ultimately, to sell the stadium, so some other entity, public or private, can assume the costs involved.

Their solution has been to negotiate with an outfit calling itself Huntley Sports Group, with which the mayor and council have agreed “in principle” to sign a management deal with, giving Huntley, or HSG, control over the stadium, along with a right of first refusal to buy the facility, if and when the city decides to unload it, which can’t come soon enough based upon comments by McGrady and Robertson.

HSG has nothing on its resume to suggest it can successfully book and manage non-baseball events. There is nothing on its resume other than the promotion of sports-related clinics and youth tournaments. One of the principals is a commercial real estate man, who came to the city’s attention because he is interested in acquiring and developing another property near the stadium.

The deal with HSG essentially gives the city 50 percent of the gross events revenue, but this is a non-existent number. The Ripken group, which paid the city $90,000 to manage non-baseball events in 2017, offered 10 percent to do so this year, which the city rejected. The Ripken people said they were told not to book any 2018 events until management issues were resolved, which made them reluctant to offer more. Frankly, the city will be lucky to get anywhere near $90,000 in 2018 – or beyond.

The right of first refusal to buy the stadium amounts to an agreement of sale that has not been approved by or even put before the city’s voters. Moreover, there is nothing in the agreement to indemnify the city and its taxpayers if Huntley fails and walks away. There’s no performance bond required.

Robertson and McGrady have said repeatedly the stadium has been a bad deal for Aberdeen. The deal they are about to sign is not only likely to be far worse for Aberdeen, but it will, as one Harford County Chamber of Commerce leader has warned, become a black eye for the city and the county at a time when neither needs one.

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