Stadium deal may be redone

The Baltimore Sun

After weeks of exploring the sale of Ripken Stadium, the mayor of Aberdeen said he believes a restructuring of the original agreements between the city and Cal Ripken Jr. may be the more likely remedy to stem the city's losses.

Separately, a developer who owns land adjacent to the stadium has contacted the city about its plans for the parcel -- ones that include a discount retailer and appear inconsistent with the city's original specifications for the project. Expected to pump tax revenue into the city's coffers and offset the stadium's losses, the project's delay has been blamed for Aberdeen's financial woes.

Mayor S. Fred Simmons has said he wanted to sell the city-owned stadium, with Ripken acknowledging an interest in acquiring the 6,000-seat facility where his Aberdeen IronBirds, a Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, play 38 home games a year. Simmons even announced at a City Council meeting last month that a framework for a deal with Ripken appeared to be in place.

Since then, however, negotiations have taken a turn, he said. Changes to an agreement signed in 2000, which details the responsibilities of the city and Ripken's Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, have become his preferred option, he said.

A renegotiation "more accurately reflects what is and what can be down the road," Simmons said. Changes to the agreement would be designed to relieve the city's operating losses on the stadium.

Experts on stadium financing had expressed skepticism that the $18 million stadium could be sold to a private entity without making heavy concessions.

Chris Flannery, the chief operating officer of Tufton, said few discussions with the city had taken place in recent weeks. He wasn't aware of Simmons' apparent change of heart but said Ripken wants to work out a deal.

"We're going to continue to talk, no doubt about it," Flannery said. "We're committed to a solution that helps the city out and is a win-win for everyone."

City Manager Douglas Miller said last week that the city's proposed budget for next year will be completed under the assumption that a sale is not imminent. Aberdeen officials had postponed submitting the budget in hopes that the prospects of a sale might become more clear.

"It's not progressing, it's not moving backwards. It's just kind of in a stalemate," Miller said. "We have put together the fiscal year 2008 budget with the assumption that the stadium will not be sold."

Simmons said responsibility for future maintenance to the stadium was emerging as a potential obstacle to a deal.

Under the current agreements, Tufton is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of the stadium, while the city is supposed to set aside $50,000 annually to finance long-term capital improvements.

A 2006 report showed the six-year-old ballpark could need $2 million worth of repairs in the next five to 10 years. To date, the city has not set aside any money for the fund because of annual losses that have topped as high as $400,000.

Under a new funding agreement, Ripken could provide the city with money to offset losses until revenue from peripheral development comes in, Simmons said. Ripken, in turn, could possibly receive a percentage of that revenue once the cash starts arriving.

Simmons also said yesterday he expects to bring in an outside consultant to broker any new deals with Ripken's company. In negotiating the original agreement in 2000, the city largely stayed in-house. The mayor at the time, Douglas Wilson, and the city manager, Peter Dacey, as well as a local divorce attorney were intricately involved.

After deciding this year that the city might be better off shedding the stadium, Simmons enlisted the help of Aberdeen's state lawmakers to determine the feasibility of such a transfer.

The stadium was financed through a private contribution from Ripken and publicly funded bonds from the city, Harford County and the state, and any sale would likely need the blessing of Harford officials and approval from the Maryland Board of Public Works.

"It's pretty clear that the property can't be sold without permission of the Board of Public Works," said Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat whose district includes Aberdeen. "[The state has] to protect their interest after providing this kind of state assistance, but my guess is that it's not insurmountable to a sale."

Meanwhile, the developer of the adjacent land, Nottingham Properties Inc., told the city this month that it now intends to build a SuperTarget on the site.

When it won the bidding for the development, Nottingham said it planned to build a complex featuring a movie theater and restaurants surrounding Ripken's minor league baseball stadium and youth training academy. The project was expected to generate about $1 million annually for the city, and serve as a year-round draw for visitors in the shadow of a seasonal ballpark.

A movie theater was the crucial component of the project, estimated to bring in $400,000 alone, and Aberdeen already has a Target less than two miles away from the proposed location.

As recently as a month ago, Nottingham's leasing agent said the developers were pushing for a theater but were having trouble because of a tax on movie tickets -- the key cash generator for the city. Still, the agent said that was the preferred use.

"We have a theater deal that could be teed up very quickly, but the theater tax is making it extremely difficult," said the leasing agent, Mark E. Mueller, an associate with KLNB Inc. "I think we need the theater. It's not a grocery-anchored shopping center site. It's not a major discount or department store site. It is an entertainment center."

Mueller could not be reached for comment yesterday.

According to land covenants, a "big-box" retailer is not among the prohibited uses, but officials say they are checking to see if the city's zoning code has such restrictions.

"We don't necessarily want that," said City Councilman Michael G. Hiob. "I'm not for it."

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