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With lease talks progressing, Aberdeen officials consider their future role with stadium

Aberdeen city officials might consider reviving an independent commission to oversee management of Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium.
Aberdeen city officials might consider reviving an independent commission to oversee management of Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium. (ALLAN VOUGHT | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

With negotiations under way for a new lease on city-owned Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen city officials concede they aren't sure what role the city government should play in the stadium's management going forward.

Earlier this week, the city manager suggested the mayor and city council might consider reviving an independent commission to oversee the 15-year-old stadium that costs the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to maintain and service its debt.

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Reporting to the mayor and council during a City Hall work session Monday evening, City Manager Randy Robertson said there have been "several meetings" between him and Aberdeen IronBirds General Manager Matt Slatus on the new lease/concession agreement.

Slatus, who was sitting in the back of the council chamber and was acknowledged by Robertson, did not make any comments.

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Ripken Baseball, which owns the IronBirds, is the stadium's sole tenant and controls its management, including most non-baseball events held there.

Aberdeen mayor says it's too early to say if the new majority owners of the Aberdeen IronBirds would move the team once they acquire the Ripkens' share, but the head of the city's economic development commission urges city leaders to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The mayor wants a solution that "works best for everybody."

The negotiations on the stadium lease are taking place against the backdrop of Ripken baseball owners Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken looking for a partner to buy a majority ownership in the team.

The Class A short season IronBirds have a player development agreement with the Baltimore Orioles that was recently extended through the2018 season. Under such agreements, the Major League club provides and pays the minor league team's players and coaching staff.

Robertson said the city needs to think in terms of "new directions," as much has changed between 2002 when the stadium opened and 2016.

"I think we need to consider the stadium a quality of life issue like a park," he said. "I would ask each of you to give me your thoughts on the way forward."

Harford County government considers the Aberdeen IronBirds a major tourist attraction and wants to "work closely" with the team's owner to ensure it remains in Aberdeen, spokesperson Cindy Mumby said. There's no offer of financial support, but she noted the City of Aberdeen already gets a "generous portion" of the county lodging tax.

In addition to meeting with the IronBirds, Robertson said he has discussed the stadium with former city managers, as well as with representatives of other cities that own stadiums and companies that manage stadiums.

He said revival of the independent stadium commission "might give a third option" of having people oversee the facility "without a dog in the fight."

When Ripken Stadium first opened, the mayor and council in office at the time created a stadium management board to oversee its operation. The board met regularly, handled the leasing negotiations and scheduling of non-baseball events and issued annual reports, all of which showed the stadium was costing city taxpayers more money than it was taking in.

In November 2013, however, the management board faded away after the stadium concession agreement with Tufton Professional Baseball LLC (aka Ripken Baseball) was renegotiated to give Tufton the right to rent the stadium out for non-baseball events.

The Aberdeen City Council agreed to spend almost $1 million to repair railings at Ripken Stadium, as city leaders continue debating how to pay for ballpark-related costs going forward.

At the time, then-city manager Doug Miller said the management board was no longer needed, and oversight of the stadium would go back to the mayor and city council, according to reports in The Record and The Aegis at the time. Robertson succeed Miller, who left Aberdeen to become city manager in Ocean City last winter.

A clause in concession agreement gave the city the option to hold five to six events at the facility, Robertson said, which he suggested be eliminated in the new agreement.

"We need to get out of that business; we don't have the skills," he said. "They [Ripken Baseball] are prepared to do that and we are not."

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Mayor Patrick McGrady said it sounded to him that the negotiations "are off to a good start," while Councilman Tim Lindecamp asked how much the stadium is worth.

Robertson replied there is no valuation on the property itself, only that the stadium cost $18 million to build and the city still owns $3.5 million on the debt it floated for land acquisition and construction.

He presented the mayor and council with a 15-year spreadsheet of revenues and expenses that showed for the most recent full fiscal year, 2016, the stadium generated an estimated $263,000 in concession, amusement tax and lease revenue, while the city spent an estimated $841,000 for operations, maintenance and debt service.

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.

Lease revenue comes from long-term ground leases for two lots adjacent to the stadium used by Ripken Baseball's youth programs. (Ownership of a third lot, which is occupied by the Marriott Courtyard hotel, was transferred to the Ripken organization in 2009 under terms of the original lease, city Finance Director Opiribo Jack said Wednesday.)

The fiscal 2017 budget estimates revenue at $339,000 and expenses at $1.2 million, the latter including $500,000 in general funds recently approved toward an almost $1 million project to replace railings and repair concrete cracks throughout the stadium.

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