The City of Aberdeen is “close to a deal” with an independent party to manage events at Ripken Stadium in 2018, while city leaders remain committed to eventually selling the stadium, Mayor Patrick McGrady said this week.
Any action to sell the stadium outright is on hold, however, until issues with the general obligation bonds the city sold to build the stadium are resolved, he confirmed.
“We’re very close to a plan for 2018,” McGrady said after Monday’s night’s City Council meeting.
“And then, we’re looking forward to disposition,” he said. “We want good things to happen and we’re going to work with the people who can help good things happen. We really believe the stadium has a lot of potential and we want to see it maximize its potential before it wears out.”
The mayor’s and City Council’s announced intention to sell the stadium, home of the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team, has set off a flurry of activity, some through back channels. This, as many community, business and political leaders in Harford County have come forward to warn city officials their actions on the stadium could backfire.
Two business leaders this week said there are fears that Cal Ripken and his brother, Bill Ripken, could scale back – or end – business activities in their hometown. In addition to the IronBirds, the former major league players operate a youth baseball complex, The Ripken Experience, which brings players from the region and beyond to Aberdeen each year.
McGrady, who says the stadium is a financial burden on city taxpayers, said Aberdeen has had offers from “two qualified parties” to buy the facility. The city’s first priority, however, is to strike a deal to manage non-IronBirds activities next year, he said.
The leading contender is the Huntley Group, according to McGrady.
The Huntley Group is a partnership among Pinkard Properties in Towson, MFS Advisors in New York and Dave Huntley, “a living legend in lacrosse,” said Athan Sunderland, executive vice president of Pinkard Properties, a Baltimore commercial realty firm.
“Our objective for the city of Aberdeen is to help the city program an asset that is hugely valuable to the community, to local business and to the general pride of an entire area because the Ripken brand is so wonderful,” Sunderland said Thursday.
He sees a three-way win, he said, between the city of Aberdeen, Tufton and the Ripkens, and Huntley Sports Group.
But buying Ripken Stadium from the city is not the “driving force” in the agreement being negotiated between Aberdeen and Huntley on managing non-baseball events.
“If it’s the right thing to do to help the city, then sure, we would do it,” Sunderland said of the stadium purchase.
While McGrady confirmed the city’s negotiations with Sunderland, he wouldn’t rule out still making a deal with the Ripkens.
“But we’re equally likely to sign a deal with Tufton LLC [Ripken’s company] so we’re talking to several parties,” he said.
After the city asked Tufton if it would continue to manage non-baseball events for 2018, Tufton offered 10 percent of revenues for the year in lieu of the $95,000 licensing fee it paid this year.
“Their figure was 10 percent of revenues for 2018, which is effectively 10 percent of what they have said will be nothing,” McGrady said.
John Maroon, a spokesman for Tufton and the Ripkens, majority owners of Tufton and the IronBirds, said that as of Wednesday, they had not heard back from Aberdeen regarding Tufton’s offer. Tufton has also said that the longer a decision drags out, the more difficult it will be to book any events next year.
Meanwhile, the City Council remains committed to finding a new owner for what the mayor said is a $20 million sports facility.
“We would love to sign an agreement with a group that wants to manage the stadium and would at some point in the future own the stadium,” McGrady said. “So we’re going to continue to pursue that.”
The city does not intend, at this point, to sign a long-term management agreement with any party “because of our interest in disposition” of the stadium, he said.
“If we can find somebody who wants to build a relationship with the Tufton Professional Baseball group that’s the primary tenant of the stadium and find a way to generate more community events which make more money for the city and help offset the $1 million a year it costs to pay for the stadium, then I’m excited about it,” he said.
Bond issue question
Before anything can be made to work, the city must resolve questions surrounding the $3.5 million in general obligation bonds used to finance construction of the stadium, which opened in 2002.
One of the conditions of general obligation bonds, a tool of the federal government that allows a municipality to borrow money for construction projects, e the stadium, is that the proceeds can’t be used for for-profit use, the mayor said.
The city’s bond counsel, Lindsay Rader, who did not return a phone message, is looking into whether the tax-free status of the bonds outstanding in the city are in good standing with the IRS, McGrady said.
“I’m not saying this caused a problem because we don’t know if there is a problem,” he said. “The attorney is checking to see if there is a problem.”
The city will also need approval from the state Board of Public Works to sell the stadium because of the bond issue, he said.
That is, McGrady said, “If we get a contract, if we get out from under the general obligation bonds that were financed in 2010 and if, ultimately, the city decides to sell.”
Impact on the county
Angela Rose, president and CEO of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, urged the City Council to accept an offer from Tufton to run events in 2018 and pay the city 10 percent of the revenues.
“I urge you to accept that deal with the expectation that Tufton Baseball will guarantee a minimum of events in 2018,” Rose told the council Monday.
The chamber is taking a position on the negotiations, she said, because of its economic impact on the county as a whole.
“The county is affected economically through this issue, with jobs, revenue and the participants who attend events at Ripken Stadum,” she said, offering Chamber assistance in furthering negotiations.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman supports efforts by the Harford Chamber of Commerce to bring the City of Aberdeen together with Tufton to finalize an agreement on non-baseball events in the coming year and has offered in the past to provide a mediator, Cindy Mumby, the county executive’s spokesperson said Wednesday.
“That offer still stands. It is important to find a timely solution that allows these events to continue and grow,” Mumby said. “Tufton and Ripken Baseball are part of the fabric of our community, as avid supporters of local nonprofits and as drivers of economic activity, tourism revenue and jobs.”
Maroon said the Ripkens would meet with a mediator.
“If asked, we would be willing to take part,” Maroon said.
Patti Parker, president of Visit Harford!, which oversees most of the tourism promotion activities in the county, also encouraged the city to agree to the 10 percent deal with Tufton, and to do it by the end of the year.
“We would like you to please consider the overall impact on the entire county, and to start to try to think of it as an entity that belongs to the county. It’s the only stadium here ... ” Parker told city officials Monday.
Parker and Rose made similar pleas to the Harford County Council members at their meeting Tuesday night.
McGrady acknowledged their concerns, but said it’s easy to criticize from the outside looking in.
“The people who live in Aberdeen and pay taxes in Aberdeen, they understand the deal that we have for the stadium is a bad deal for the city of Aberdeen. Everybody gets that,” the mayor said.
“What these outside voices try to tell the people of Aberdeen is that they need to suck up this loss and keep paying for it,” he said. “And it’s easy to say when you live in Bel Air or Forest Hill or you live in Jarrettsville, that Aberdeen needs to keep paying $1 million bucks a year for their stadium.”
Most of the criticism, he said, has come from “political actors with political motivations.”
“I genuinely feel for the anxiety to our local business community for their concern of the future of the Ripken Experience and we’ll do everything in our power ot alleviate that concern and help the Ripken Experience be successful in all of their tournaments and camps,” he said.