Aberdeen IronBirds owners hopeful for 'long-term' solution on Ripken Stadium issues

The owners of the Aberdeen IronBirds hope for a “long-term solution” to the issues that have put them at odds with the City of Aberdeen in recent months, including responsibility for managing events outside baseball season and the proposed sale of the team’s home, Ripken Stadium.

“Tufton Professional Baseball would welcome a long-term solution resolving all issues that are open between it and the City,” John Maroon, a spokesperson for the team’s business entity and the sole stadium tenant, wrote in an emailed statement Friday.

Maroon’s comments came the day after city leaders postponed taking action on a draft events management agreement between the city and the Towson-based Huntley Sports Group giving the firm the responsibility for managing non-baseball events at the stadium.

Tufton’s agreement with the city that put it in charge of non-baseball events ended Dec. 31, 2017, shifting that responsibility to the city. The City of Aberdeen owns the stadium, which opened in 2002. Tufton’s principal owners are former Baltimore Orioles players Cal and Bill Ripken, Aberdeen natives who still have substantial family and business ties to the community.

The agreement with Huntley Sports had been on the agenda of Thursday evening’s City Council meeting. It was postponed at the recommendation of City Manager Randy Robertson pending discussions with Aberdeen’s bond counsel and city attorney over the tax-exempt status of $2.3 million in outstanding stadium construction bonds as well as some language in the draft agreement with Huntley Sports.

City officials are “actively” working through those concerns, Mayor Patrick McGrady said after a closed session meeting with the city attorney Thursday night.

In addition to giving Huntley Sports control of all non-baseball events at the 16-year-old city-owned stadium – in exchange for 50 percent of revenue — the pending agreement would place Huntley Sports in charge of the Tufton/IronBirds lease.

The agreement would also give Huntley Sports a right of first refusal to buy the stadium if the city decides to sell it, which is the stated intent of the mayor and a majority of the City Council.

Tufton representatives have had “no substantive meetings” with Huntley Sports leaders, Maroon said.

“In the meantime, the IronBirds look forward to playing games into the future at Ripken Stadium and we will not speculate on any Stadium Management Agreement with Huntley Sports Group or comment on any discussions that may be taking place,” Maroon said in his statement.

Tufton has a lease to remain in the stadium through 2022 and an option to renew for another 20 years. McGrady announced plans in November to sell the stadium and work with a third-party real estate firm to market it.

Tufton had turned down an offer from the city to purchase the stadium for $1, as well as assuming the outstanding debt.

Maroon stressed, in a follow-up email Sunday, that the team remains committed to the community and Tufton has no plans to buy out the remaining years on its lease, which comes with the option to extend.

“As we have stated on multiple occasions, the IronBirds are committed to Aberdeen,” Maroon wrote.

Tourism and business leaders outside Aberdeen have weighed in on the controversy and implored city leaders to reach an accord with Tufton, as the IronBirds, Ripken Stadium and the adjacent Ripken Experience youth baseball center are considered major assets to the Harford County economy.

“They’re focused on the cost of having the stadium in the county, and they really need to be looking at the economic impact revenue generated by having the stadium in Harford County and the City of Aberdeen,” Greg Pizzuto, executive director of Visit Harford! said Saturday.

Visit Harford, a nonprofit, quasi-government entity established by the county to promote local destinations, gets its funding from the Harford hotel occupancy tax that took effect in early 2015.

About half a million dollars goes to Visit Harford! each year — its budget for fiscal 2018, fully funded by the 6 percent room tax revenue, is $540,000, Pizzuto said.

Harford’s three municipalities, Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, get 50 percent of the revenue collected through hotels in the town or city limits, according to Bill 14-035, the County Council legislation that established the tax. Aberdeen, which has the most hotels of the three municipalities, receives about $600,000 a year, which amounts to about $1.7 million over the past three years, according to Pizzuto.

“I am not going to say that it’s all attributed to Tufton baseball, but sports tourism is a major component in those hotel dollars,” Pizzuto said.

He said the IronBirds are “not going anywhere,” citing their lease, and he said city leaders should do everything possible to encourage people to buy tickets.

“Every ticket sold for an Aberdeen IronBirds game has an [admissions and] amusement tax that goes directly back to the City of Aberdeen,” Pizzuto said, citing the city’s 10 percent admissions and amusement tax.

Admissions and amusements taxes are levied, at varied rates, in Harford County, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, too, according to the Comptroller of Maryland’s website.

Pizzuto estimated the IronBirds have an economic impact of about $1 million a year in Aberdeen, a figure he called “a real conservative number,” based on people who work for the team, visitors who attend games and other events at Ripken Stadium, and also eat at restaurants, stay in hotels and use other local services.

He said each city resident would “have to write a check to make up that difference that Ripken baseball is providing to the City of Aberdeen in direct and indirect economic impact” if the team left.

Angela Rose, president and CEO of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, said chamber leaders hope for a resolution to the events management issue “in the near future.”

Rose wrote in an email Monday that Ripken Stadium, which she called “a premier event venue,” is “basically, sitting dormant until an agreement can be signed [which means] no revenue generation for the City of Aberdeen” except rental income from weekly church services.

“Not having an organization responsible for hosting 2018 non-Ironbirds events at Ripken Stadium hurts the county as a whole,” she wrote. “Each day that passes with no agreement makes it more difficult to plan and host non-Ironbirds events in 2018.”

Athan Sunderland, CEO of Huntley Sports Group, reaffirmed his organization’s commitment to the success of Ripken Stadium and the City of Aberdeen in an appearance before the mayor and City Council during Thursday’s council meeting.

“I appreciate our collective efforts to continue to work together to create the right document with the right language that works for all parties involved,” said Sunderland, who read a letter from himself and Kevin Huntley, the group’s president, into the record.

Addressed to the city officials, Aberdeen residents, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC and the Ripken family, the letter discussed Huntley Sports Group’s hope for a satisfactory resolution to the stadium management issue.

“A win-win solution is one that is focused on supporting the long-term combined success of the stadium, the City of Aberdeen, Ripken Baseball operations and Huntley Sports Group,” Sunderland said, reading from the letter.

“We are committed to the city, we are committed to our continued work with the Ripkens and Tufton Baseball, and we are committed to the people of Aberdeen to keep their economic engine growing by investing significant time, money and resources into what will be an even brighter future,” he said.

 

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