Citing progress, Ripken Stadium events manager seeks approval to book 2019 events

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At least one non-baseball event has been happening at Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium each week in 2018, according to the CEO of the firm the city hired earlier this year to handle such bookings.

The hiring of Huntley Sports Group was a controversial move by city officials, who said they wanted to boost revenue from the city-owned stadium, which is home to the Aberdeen IronBirds Class A short season minor league team, owned by brothers Cal and Bill Ripken and affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles.

Athan Sunderland, Huntley’s CEO, told Mayor Patrick McGrady, City Council members and other city staff on Monday evening that bookings will be better in 2019 and his firm wants to extend its one-year contract.

There are multiple events some weeks, plus people and organizations want to book events for 2019, he said.

“It looks like, every weekend in the fall, we’ll have something.”

“Great,” McGrady replied.

The city and Huntley executed an agreement in February to have the firm manage events through Dec. 31. Securing permission from the city for Huntley to book more events next year, given the interest expressed by potential users such as people planning weddings, was the topic of discussion Monday for Sunderland and city leaders.

“If we want to do this, the best that we can, the time to have the conversation about looking at 2019 is now,” Sunderland said.

But he also said later that no weddings have been booked this year, which was supposed to be one of the major efforts when his firm took over.

Sunderland said an extension of his agreement would allow him time to coordinate with city marketing staff and with Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, the baseball team’s owner which has a long-term lease on the stadium and, prior to Huntley’s arrival, had been booking non-baseball events, as well.

The IronBirds play 38 regular season home games at the stadium from mid-June through early September.

Sunderland said he has been able to book events such as, corporate retreats, functions by nonprofit organizations such as the Susquehanna Workforce Network and community events such as the East Coast Military Vehicle Rally in May.

He is also working with the organizers of the Susquehanna River Running Festival, scheduled for Sept. 15 in Havre de Grace and Perryville, to use the stadium as a staging area.

Sunderland also mentioned an upcoming crab feast to support Ashley Addiction Treatment, of Havre de Grace.

He said Tuesday that he has booked “several” corporate events, and there has been interest in booking weddings next year, but he referred questions about any revenue his company has provided to the city this year to the city administration.

Sunderland also updated the city officials about his efforts to work with Tufton regarding booking events, even as negotiations between the city and Tufton over long-standing issues with the stadium, such as maintenance and capital repairs, continue.

The city and Tufton were in a disagreement last year over who would manage non-baseball events in future years. Tufton had handled those duties through the end of 2017, and it came under the city’s control this year.

Revenues from 2018 events go directly to the city, and Huntley is paid a management fee worth 15 percent of the “actual and direct expenses paid by HSG to unrelated parties” as part of its overhead, according to the management agreement.

Tufton has a 20-year lease with the city that ends in 2022. The stadium opened in 2002, and the city is still paying back bonds taken out to finance construction of the facility. Aberdeen has made offers to sell the stadium to entities such as Tufton, but those offers have been turned down.

“The Tufton organization and the Huntley Sports Group and the city have figured out a lot of ways to work with each other to make [events] successful, and we’re getting better and better at it,” Sunderland said.

According to Tufton, however, not much progress has been made.

“We have shared with the City our concerns that it has not been fulfilling its capital improvements and major maintenance obligations and we await progress,” John Maroon, a spokesperson for Ripken Baseball, wrote in a emailed statement Thursday. “Our attorneys have been talking, but the city has resisted acknowledging important improvements that are necessary to maintain the Stadium. The city has failed to meet its ongoing obligations and has failed to complete the repairs that were budgeted for 2017-2018.”

“With regard to events our position remains unchanged,” Maroon said. “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.”

Sunderland previously reported sticking points to booking major events during a council work session in March, such as whether the city or Tufton would provide insurance coverage, alcohol service and scheduling.

He did not mention any of those issues Monday, however, and touted the good working relationship he has with both parties. He recommended the council grant permission to extend HSG’s events management role into next year, plus “allow and encourage” the firm to discuss with Tufton “about a 2019 arrangement that’s slightly different than it is today.”

“Tufton is in a terrific position to operate and procure and execute on the events, on whatever the event is,” Sunderland said.

He said the team owners have the staff and infrastructure in place to support events, and Huntley Sports Group hires staff for “certain roles.” Sunderland later gave an example of custodial duties during events.

“If Huntley is able to work with the city as it has been, to work with Tufton as it has been, to take that next step together, we’re going to find even greater success,” Sunderland said.

He said the details of any changes could be defined further in future council meetings.

City Manager Randy Robertson said City Attorney Frederick Sussman has been working with Tufton’s attorney. He and McGrady expressed concern about discussing the details of their ongoing negotiations during the work session, which was open to the media and the public.

“I wouldn’t want to say more than we can, as it relates to the positions that we’re going to go into this discussion with [Tufton] about,” McGrady said.

The city manager later said officials hope to secure a third-party mediator for the discussions with Tufton.

Robertson stressed to the council that extending the agreement with Huntley Sports Group would be their decision.

“Just like last year, we are in a position where people want to know, can I do the wedding in March [2019]?” Robertson said.

The city manager described a sense of “déjà vu,” which elicited frustration from Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck.

“This is where we were last year,” Landbeck said.

McGrady said he thinks “everybody wants to make something happen,” and he asked Sunderland to put together a framework of an agreement, provide it to the city manager within a week. It could then be reviewed by the City Council and the city attorney and be a topic of discussion at the next council meeting.

Sunderland agreed, and the council expressed its support.

“That doesn’t require us to do anything,” McGrady said. “It allows us to see it on paper so we can make a decision.”

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