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Bel Air racism, Aberdeen stadium sale discussed with Harford legislators

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady holds up an aerial image of Ripken Stadium while talking about the stadium's future with Harford County legislators at the Abingdon Library Wednesday.
Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady holds up an aerial image of Ripken Stadium while talking about the stadium's future with Harford County legislators at the Abingdon Library Wednesday. (David Anderson/The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Bel Air town officials are concerned about pervasive racism in their community, and Aberdeen city officials are still trying to sell Ripken Stadium, leaders of the two municipalities told state legislators Wednesday.

“There is great concern about racism and issues of diversity out in the community,” Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane said during an annual pre-session meeting hosted by Harford County’s state senators and delegates at the Abingdon Library.

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Local legislators host the day-long meeting each year prior to the the start of the Maryland General Assembly session in January to hear from county and municipal entities about their accomplishments and issues, and about any assistance they might need from Annapolis.

The Bel Air officials heard concerns from residents during town meetings in January after an Indian-American woman was stopped by police while walking in her neighborhood, which she presumed was because of her race. Then in October, they heard from people after a group of Bel Air High School students posed for a photo of them spelling out a racial slur, which was posted on social media. Both incidents generated significant commentary on social media.

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Republican Del. Susan McComas, whose district includes Bel Air, asked if those expressing concerns were “Bel Air-centric, or are folks coming from outside of Bel Air?”

Town Commissioner Robert Preston replied that people from Aberdeen to Baltimore, as well as Bel Air, had attended town meetings to express their concerns about the incidents of racism.

“I think that’s what concerned citizens are looking for is, if there is a problem they expect it to be addressed,” Bane said.

He said the public’s concerns might not be a legislative issue at the state level but “that’s not to say they wouldn’t be searching for some type of legislation.”

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In response to questions from legislators, Bane and Preston said that racism and diversity concerns were not part of a town meeting agenda, but that they had been brought to the commissioners’ attention.

“They wanted to come to our meeting and express their concerns, and we pretty much acknowledged their concerns and are willing to work with the community,” Preston said.

Stadium sale

Aberdeen’s city leaders want to remove from the city’s books an asset that costs city taxpayers about $1 million a year, Mayor Patrick McGrady said in explaining their desire to sell Ripken Stadium.

“The City Council is united in our hope of selling the facility,” McGrady said of the home of the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team.

The council will meet Monday evening to “decide on a plan for disposition of the asset,” he said.

McGrady told the legislators he has heard expressions of interest from potential buyers, such as property developers interested in land near Interstate 95, operators who want to bring another sports team to Aberdeen, even the new owner of the Ice World rink in Abingdon.

The current — and only — stadium tenant, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, turned down a recent offer from the city to buy the facility for $1. The offer included a pledge that the city would pay off the $2.3 million remaining debt incurred to build the stadium in 2002 as well as city and county property tax incentives.

Tufton is the business entity of the Aberdeen IronBirds. Cal Ripken Jr., a former Baltimore Oriole and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer is the majority owner of the team, along with his brother, Bill Ripken, also a former Oriole.

The Ripken brothers, who grew up in Aberdeen, are the majority owners of Ripken Baseball, too, which owns and operates The Ripken Experience Aberdeen. The Ripken Experience, which is adjacent to the stadium but a separate entity, hosts multiple youth baseball tournaments every year.

“Call your friends at Tufton Professional Baseball and tell them that they should buy the stadium for the dollar because the City Council really would love to get it off their books,” McGrady told the legislators.

Republican Del. Andrew Cassilly asked whether the stadium, given its proximity to I-95, could become a venue for major events such as concerts or sports beyond the IronBirds’ 38-game short season.

“It is a shame that a deal can’t be struck ... it could be a major sports complex,” Cassilly said.

McGrady said Ripken Stadium is “of interest to this body, not necessarily an item of your urgent concern.”

“The stadium has been a financial burden to the City of Aberdeen since it was constructed,” McGrady said, while also saying the state contributed some money toward construction as well as to needed major capital repairs since the facility opened.

He said Ripken Stadium and its 19-acre parking lot costs the city about $1 million a year, including about $580,000 in debt service.

That equals about 7 percent of the city’s annual budget, the mayor said. That money could instead go to police, road maintenance or a community center, he said.

McGrady said the city is “on the hook” for all capital repairs costs, which he called “an unlimited liability that we are not willing to continue.”

“The facility today is in really good shape, really good shape structurally,” he said.

The stadium generates about $300,000 a year in revenue for the city including ticket sales, taxes and a license fee from revenue Tufton incurs by managing non-baseball events at the stadium, according to McGrady.

He estimated each taxpayer incurs $200 to $300 of the annual cost of running the stadium. McGrady said losing $1 million a year might not be a big deal to Maryland with its 6 million residents or Harford County, which has about 250,000 residents.

“We have 15,000 people with a median income of $44,000 a year and that hurts,” he said.

Saving energy

Havre de Grace Mayor Bill Martin and Patrick Sypolt, director of administration, discussed the city’s efforts to conserve fuel and promote renewable energy use through electric vehicles for city workers and using solar energy to power municipal facilities.

“I can transport my workforce around the city for a penny a mile,” Martin said of the electric vehicles.

He and Sypolt also discussed their efforts to obtain electric vehicles so visitors can get around downtown, via a trolley, bus or golf carts.

“I’ve sat in hours and hours of golf cart legislation [meetings] and it never ends well,” Cassilly warned.

He said law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about intoxicated people driving golf carts on public streets.

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The mayor said golf cart requests are separate from the trolley/bus matter.

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Sypolt said the city officials want to work out issues such as restrictions on gross vehicle weights and the ability to travel on state-maintained roads — such as Union Avenue in downtown Havre de Grace — to facilitate the bus or trolley system.

“Our priority is the buses,” Martin said. “We would appreciate anything you could do for us.”

Sypolt also said the city is seeking state capital funds to improve the Havre de Grace Police Department gun range — the money would be used for lead abatement, improving the facilities and new training technology.

Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga suggested a private-public partnership with paid memberships to raise funds — she said there is a multi-year waiting list to become a member of a gun range close to where she lives in Perry Hall.

Cassilly said the range “looks incredibly run-down” and suggested having people performing court-ordered community service hours perform repairs.

“There’s so much potential here, if you can get it squared away,” the delegate said.

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