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Ripken company issues deadline to Aberdeen to respond on stadium upgrades, contract

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Cal Ripken Jr.'s sports management company says his firm should take over management of non-baseball events such as weddings, concerts and fundraisers at Ripken Stadium, and claims the City of Aberdeen has not fulfilled its obligations to upgrade the city-owned ballpark.

In a letter to city officials last week, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, owned by the former Baltimore Orioles great and his family, demanded the city fulfill its obligations to improve the home of the Aberdeen Ironbirds minor league team.

The Oct. 3 letter, signed by Cal Ripken, requested a response from city officials by Tuesday to avoid "legal action against the City of Aberdeen to protect our contractual rights."

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said Monday he hoped the city would have a response by then to the Aberdeen IronBirds owners’ demand that the city hold up its end of the 2000 concession agreement between the parties.

“We hope to be able to have a response by tomorrow,” McGrady said Monday night, after the mayor, the City Council and legal counsel held a closed session.

Cal Ripken, a former Orioles star and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, and his brother, Bill, also a former Oriole, are the majority owners of the team that they worked to bring to their hometown of Aberdeen. The IronBirds play at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium. The city-owned stadium opened in 2002; Tufton, the sole stadium tenant, has a lease that extends through 2022.

There have been multiple discussions and attempts at mediation between the city and Tufton, but relations continue to be strained.

City leaders have worked to keep discussions between the parties, “out of the public’s eye, and we will continue to attempt this as long as it is practicable,” McGrady said.

“As always, I and the council are optimistic about the future,” the mayor said.

The mayor and City Council had spent more than 90 minutes meeting with City Attorney Frederick Sussman in the closed session, following the adjournment of the regular council meeting earlier Monday evening.

The reasons for going into closed session, which the mayor and council approved unanimously, were to “consult with council to obtain legal advice” and to “consult with staff, consultants or other individuals about pending or potential litigation.”

McGrady declined to say whether the discussion was related to the demands in Ripken’s letter, citing regulations governing closed sessions.

Relations between Tufton and the city have been strained for at least a year over issues such as which party is responsible for expensive, yet necessary, stadium repairs and overall maintenance, and whether Tufton or the city should handle management of non-baseball events at the stadium.

The city currently has an agreement with the Huntley Sports Group, of Towson, to manage non-baseball events. Aberdeen officials have also explored selling the stadium.

The city and the Ripkens also have been locked in a long-running dispute over management of non-baseball events at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, which some city officials say is a financial drain. Arguing the ballpark is underutilized, the city named Huntley as its new vendor in February to schedule and operate non-baseball events at the stadium.

Tufton previously handled not only the IronBirds operations at the city-owned stadium, but also the booking of other events that were not baseball related, keeping that revenue and paying the city an annual fee under a deal that expired Dec. 31.

After the deal expired, the city hired Huntley Sports Group in February to take over non-baseball events, hoping to bring additional activity to the stadium — and more revenue to the city. The city has said in the past that it has more than $2 million outstanding bond debt from the stadium's construction.

The hiring of Huntley strained relations between the city and the Ripkens, and in his letter to city officials, Cal Ripken, who serves as president and CEO of Tufton, reminded the city that "almost 20 years ago, we joined hand-in-hand to bring a state-of-the-art minor league stadium to the City." He also noted that he and his brother "personally invested more than $6 million in the stadium."

John Maroon, longtime representative of Tufton and the Ripkens, said Friday there would be no further comment beyond the contents of the letter. But in comments over the summer, Maroon said the company contends Aberdeen officials had not fulfilled "capital improvements and major maintenance obligations."

In 2016, a consultant's study identified about 50 repair and enhancement projects the stadium would need over 10 years, with an estimated price tag of about $3.2 million. The largest single project was a replacement of railings costing about $1 million, which has since been completed. The list of improvements fell into categories of safety, enhanced fan experience and general repairs. Tufton also spend more than $1 million last year to install a new video board and scoreboard in center field.

"Our attorneys have been talking, but the city has resisted acknowledging important improvements that are necessary to maintain the stadium," Maroon said in July. "With regard to events our position remains unchanged. We continue to believe that the Tufton group is best positioned to manage all events at the stadium. A single manager would be in the best interests of the citizens of Aberdeen and would produce the most money for the city."

This week's letter from Ripken references effort in September "to mediate our disputes," but says they "failed to produce any resolution."

The letter states that Tufton and the Ripkens want the city to "honor its obligations to undertake capital improvements, major maintenance, and replacements" at the stadium; acknowledge that the city has recouped its 2000 investment in the stadium; "confirm Tufton's unilateral right" to renew its lease contract for another 20 years, 2023-2042.

"As you know, my brother and I were born and raised in the City of Aberdeen and have great respect for everyone who lives and works in this beautiful part of Maryland," Cal Ripken wrote.

In the letter, Ripken later states: "Although I wish our lawyers did not have to do so, they are prepared to take legal action against the City of Aberdeen to protect our contractual rights, unless the City and Tufton can reach a mutually acceptable resolution by the close of business on Tuesday, October 9, 2018."

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