Parking fees on the way for Ripken Stadium?

The Baltimore Sun

The board that manages Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen will study assessing a $2 per car parking fee for minor league baseball games and other events, part of an effort to solve financial woes the ballpark has created for the city.

The seven-member Ripken Stadium Management Board formed a subcommittee to look into the possibility last week.

Though IronBirds baseball games have been sold out since the 6,000-seat ballpark opened in 2002, the stadium has been a financial drain for the city. The Harford County community owes $6.7 million in stadium-related debt, and millions in interest, on a payment schedule stretching to 2022. The city's stadium fund has posted operating losses that total more than $1 million since 2001, forcing Aberdeen to dip into its treasury.

The financial woes stem from the original stadium agreement between Aberdeen and Cal Ripken Jr.'s business entity, Tufton Professional Baseball. In the deal, the company, which owns the IronBirds and Ripken's youth baseball academy, was to receive most of the money from baseball games. City officials had intended to cover expenses in other ways, including fees, taxes and a deal with a company to develop adjacent land. But that project has not materialized.

Aberdeen has the right to charge for parking, but the contract requires permission from Tufton, which has opposed the idea in the past.

"The stadium management board is looking at this as an option to generate greater revenue for the city," said John Maroon, spokesman for Tufton. "We would like to be an active part of the process, and we will have to wait and see what occurs."

Maroon declined to comment on whether Ripken Baseball would oppose a parking fee.

The city's financial difficulties with the stadium were detailed in a March article in The Sun. Aberdeen has drawn criticism for not implementing a parking fee, viewed as a failure to capitalize on revenue options. Though not viewed as a cure-all for the money woes, the fees could be part of a broader solution.

The three-member subcommittee will take about two months to research the idea and submit a recommendation to the Aberdeen City Council, said Betsy Campion, chairwoman of the stadium board. The board comprises four members appointed by the city, two by Ripken, and one by the county.

The subcommittee to study the fee includes Campion, Joseph Pfaff, who was appointed by the county, and Leslie McGlothlin, appointed by the city.

A consultant hired by the city years ago recommended a parking fee, Campion said.

The consultant's report had estimated $114,000 in parking revenue for the IronBirds' 38 home games.

"The consultant said, 'You've got to put the parking fee right away,'" Campion said. "The council members didn't consider it because of the business development. Four years later, it hasn't taken place so they have to consider all revenue groups."

A major commercial development, including a movie theater and retailers, was supposed to be built on land next to the stadium and generate revenue for the city. But that project hasn't started.

"If we're fully developed out there, as originally planned, to have retail, the fear was that many of the fans for the game would avoid the parking fee," said Douglas Miller, Aberdeen's city manager. "If the retail and restaurant complex were there, people would park in those spaces and walk over to the game and cause hardship to the retailers and restaurants - even though none of that is built."

Another project, Stadium Town Center, farther away from the stadium near Route 22, is under way, with plans for a bank, restaurant, coffee shop and a store.

Miller said the city has looked into other potential revenue sources, including a hotel tax, to help defray stadium expenses. A parking fee would have mixed benefits, he said.

"You'd have a revenue stream that we don't have today," Miller said. "The cons are that you start imposing fees on minor league baseball, you're going to drive away some of your base. You may actually financially do worse, if less people come in."

Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons is wary of the idea of imposing a parking fee.

"I'm afraid it's not enough money when you calculate the numbers of home games and the number of cars," Simmons said. "In my mind, if it's risky, I say not to do it. You can win the battle but lose the war."

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