Athan Sunderland, right, CEO of the Huntley Sports Group, talks with Aberdeen city leaders Monday about potential sticking points to putting on non-baseball events at Ripken Stadium.
Athan Sunderland, right, CEO of the Huntley Sports Group, talks with Aberdeen city leaders Monday about potential sticking points to putting on non-baseball events at Ripken Stadium. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Major revenue-generating events, such as a fall music festival, summer drone racing and a Christmas model train show, could be held at Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium this year – but might not, the venue’s new manager warned city officials Monday.

Booking non-baseball events at the city-owned stadium has stalled and could remain so until the city and the owners of the Aberdeen IronBirds baseball team work out multiple issues to ensure they can proceed, city officials were told.

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“They’re all possible, it’s just a case-by-case basis,” Athan Sunderland, CEO of the Huntley Sports Group, said during a work session Monday evening with Mayor Patrick McGrady, the City Council, City Manager Randy Robertson and various department heads.

Sunderland said his firm recommends the city and the IronBirds team owner, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, select a third-party mediator to work through the various issues he said exist between the two, as well as issues involving Tufton’s long-term concession agreement with the city.

The council approved an agreement Feb. 12 giving Huntley Sports Group authority to manage stadium non-baseball events on behalf of the city through Dec. 31, 2018.

Sticking points, based on Sunderland’s research, include establishing insurance coverage for events, either through the city or Tufton; whether alcohol can be served; scheduling so city and Tufton events do not conflict; and whether stadium maintenance would conflict with events.

Tufton is also the sole tenant of the stadium. Bill Ripken and Cal Ripken Jr., Harford County natives and former Baltimore Orioles players, are the majority owners.

The IronBirds, a minor-league affiliate of the Orioles, play a short season that last from June through September and includes 36 home games. The team is part of the Class A New York-Penn League, and it has a separate stadium lease with the city in effect through 2022.

Representatives of Tufton were not present at Monday’s work session.

“Based on the fact that we were not in attendance, we will decline comment at this time,” Tufton spokesperson John Maroon wrote in an email Tuesday.

Another issue is “recoupment,” and how often the city could get access to the stadium for events, according to Sunderland. Under the concession agreement signed by the city and Tufton in December of 2000, no more than 15 days a year can be allocated for city events once the city recoups its “initial investment” in construction of the stadium.

The city owed less than $500,000 on the $3 million it invested as of 2017, according to financial reports, The Aegis reported in December.

“If we’re looking into the fall and we’re trying to book, say, a concert, we don’t know if it’s our day, we don’t know if we can serve alcohol, we don’t know if we have insurance and on top of that, we don’t know [about] the capital expenses — is the field going to be torn up, or are the lights going to be replaced or what other things are out there?” Sunderland asked.

His current focus is on “the lowest-lying fruit,” such as coordinating a backlog of more that 20 events and forecasting future events, he said.

“What I’ve learned through the insurance piece is, don’t bite off a big one right now ... focus on the easy feel-good [events] to keep things going up there,” Sunderland said.

Some of the events he has been working on include EPIC Community Church’s Sunday services, using the stadium as a staging area for BGE crews for seven days as they worked to restore power following the March 2 windstorm, weddings and Home Runs for the Homeless, Harford Family House’s annual summer fundraising event typically held at Ripken Stadium, according to a March 15 status report Sunderland submitted to the city.

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Sunderland said Huntley Sports Group recommends the city work with Tufton to select a third-party mediator to work through issues affecting future events. He said it is up to the City Council whether or not that mediator’s opinion is binding, though.

“At least then there is an opinion, and we can continue to establish baselines,” he said.

The city took on responsibility for non-baseball events, which had been under Tufton’s control on Jan. 1 after an events agreement with Tufton expired at the end of 2017. City and Tufton officials could not come to an agreement on extending the agreement, with both sides giving conflicting accounts about what caused the breakdown in negotiations.

Robertson, the city manager, said Aberdeen and Tufton have worked with mediators in the past without success. The city hired SGM Corp., operator of the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, to mediate in early 2017 during negotiations on a new license agreement on managing events, but no agreement was reached.

“These were top-notch professionals in the United States and you saw how far they got,” Robertson said.

He suggested city officials follow military wisdom of staying in one’s lane.

“The lane right now is seeing how can we manage events,” Robertson said.

Councilman Tim Lindecamp disagreed, though.

“If we stay the course, we’re going to have this discussion next year, the following year; the next council’s going to have it,” he said.

He and other council members expressed support for binding arbitration or mediation.

“I think that’s something that we needed all along,” Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck said of third-party mediation.

She and Lindecamp agreed the city needs to find a resolution quickly.

“It’s getting a little tiresome having to answer the same question for a year and a half, and I don’t want to be doing it in another year and a half,” Landbeck said.

Mayor Patrick McGrady obtained a consensus among council members to ask Robertson to discuss mediation with the city attorney, but no decisions were made Monday.

McGrady later clarified that Robertson would ask the attorney about mediation and “what that looks like.” He stressed city leaders want “to get on the same page as Tufton” and “come up with an agreeable solution to these questions” on issues raised in Sunderland’s report.

“The goal is to get on the same page so we all have the same understanding of the concession agreement,” McGrady said. “On all accounts, it’s an agreement that needs clarification.”

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