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Senator pushes plan for stadium

The Baltimore Sun

Sale alone would not end city's debt A Harford County senator wants the Maryland Stadium Authority to consider purchasing Ripken Stadium from Aberdeen, which is soliciting a buyer after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year since the facility opened to much fanfare six years ago.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs said yesterday that she is pushing for a meeting between city officials and the authority to explore the concept.

John Moag, a former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and founder of Moag & Co., an investment bank for the sports, media and entertainment industries, said buying the stadium would make little sense if revenues continue to fall short.

"My feeling is we should involve them no matter what we do," Jacobs, a Republican, said of the quasi-public agency that was created to oversee construction and management of publicly funded stadiums. "They know the ins and outs of the best way to handle the whole thing. I want to pull them in to ask for their suggestions, to ask for their help, to see if [the state purchasing the facility] is even a possibility."

Late yesterday, Alison L. Asti, executive director of the stadium authority, said she would not comment on the prospect of the authority taking over the stadium but said that she would be willing to talk with Jacobs and Aberdeen officials.

"We would be unable to [buy the stadium] without legislative action," Asti said. "But we'd be happy to meet with [Jacobs] and share our expertise and knock some ideas around."

Jacobs said a meeting would not take place before the end of the current legislative session.

As The Sun first reported Sunday, the $18 million stadium has become a drain on the small city's budget, prompting Mayor S. Fred Simmons to seek out potential buyers. He has identified IronBirds owner and hometown hero Cal Ripken Jr. as a natural fit but also has received inquiries from two other groups.

The Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, have been playing to sold-out crowds at the 6,000-seat stadium since 2001. But a shortage of operating revenues coupled with the failure of an adjacent development to take shape has created $225,000 to $485,000 in annual losses for the city of 14,000.

City Manager Douglas R. Miller said it appears that the city cannot simply pay off its debts through a sale. The city contributed $4.8 million - raised through the state Department of Housing and Community Development's infrastructure loan program - and received assistance from Harford County and the state.

"We have a loan with [the state] that cannot be prepaid until a certain point," Miller said yesterday. "We have to work through whether we can liquidate the asset and still make payments. We also have to get permission from the state and county, to see whether they have any heartburn with this."

Miller said the goal would be to sell the stadium and use state-shared revenue - such as income tax and highway funds - as collateral on its remaining payments.

"We don't have any of those answers," he said. "We have more questions than answers at this point."

Simmons also plans to meet with Harford County Executive David R. Craig this week to inform him of the city's intention.

"We have no immediate concerns over the sale of the property, but we are exploring the ramifications to the county," said Robert B. Thomas, a county spokesman.

In the late 1990s, then-County Executive James M. Harkins committed $2 million, and the state chipped in $6 million shortly after Ripken took on a greater role in the project. But the city owns the facility and shares revenues with Ripken's company, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC.

Experts on stadium financing said they were skeptical that a sale can be achieved without Aberdeen dangling significant concessions or incentives. A minor league baseball stadium has limited uses, they said, and the facility so far has proved to be a money loser.

"The value of the building is useless - it's the revenue that counts towards paying the debts [that matters]," Moag said. "For [Ripken] to assume those bills, it just means he's taking money out of his own pocket to pay them off. Somebody's got to eat the losses, and I don't know there's an easy fix to it."

But Chris Flannery, who oversees Ripken's business ventures including the IronBirds, said acquiring the stadium could be a logical extension of their partnership with Aberdeen. The city gives Ripken's Tufton group the right to host nonbaseball events in exchange for $40,000 annually and a share of revenues.

"Financially, we're already as equally committed as the city is," Flannery said. "I think that we have, as the primary tenant, done a good job operating the facility."

Though Jacobs wants the stadium authority at the table, she said yesterday that she would welcome a sale to Ripken. She voted against public funding for the M&T; Bank Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Ravens.

"If I have a choice between the government running something or business, I would prefer to have business running it," she said. "In this case, this is such an important thing for the Ripkens, and Harford County loves them so much. I'd love to see it truly become a Ripken project."

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