Comic-book tycoon and Baltimore Orioles part-owner Steve Geppi has been negotiating to buy Baltimore magazine from the investment group that acquired it two years ago, Mr. Geppi said yesterday.
In response to a reporter's question, Mr. Geppi said he has been discussing a possible deal since April with ESS Ventures Inc., the Greenbelt-based investment group that bought the magazine in mid-1992.
The parties have "a wide bridge to cross yet" before agreeing to terms, said Mr. Geppi, head of Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. "It's definitely something that I personally want to do," he said. "But there's a price and a time for everything."
Baltimore publisher Jonathan Witty denied that the magazine is on the block.
ESS' goal "is to grow the company," Mr. Witty said. "That is where our focus is right now, and we have no current plans to sell Baltimore."
Mr. Witty did not confirm or deny that the discussions with Mr. Geppi had taken place. Three ESS investors -- T. Rowe Price's Threshold Fund, Robert Garrett of New York and Herb Fried, chairman of ad firm W. B. Doner & Co., declined to comment on the magazine's possible sale.
Baltimore, which has circulation of about 50,000 and annual revenue in the $3 million to $4 million range, has had ups and downs in recent years. It was hurt badly by the economic downturn in the early 1990s, losing ad revenue and, critics said, its editorial focus.
ESS, led by Susan Souders Obrecht, paid a reported $3 million to $4 million to Capital Gazette Communications Inc. of Annapolis for the magazine, which was founded in the early 1900s and is the oldest city magazine in the country.
Ms. Obrecht had been publisher of Mid-Atlantic Country magazine, which is still an ESS property.
Ms. Obrecht and Mr. Witty redesigned Baltimore and refocused its editorial content, adding features on arts and business as well as assigning more serious pieces, such as a story in the February issue on a controversial religious group in Catonsville.
The number of ad pages the magazine sold last year rose by 19.5 percent compared with 1992, Mr. Witty said. Baltimore is profitable, he said, but he declined to say by how much or provide revenue figures.
The magazine has had some turnover of senior staff. Managing editor Craig Stoltz and art director David Whitmore both left last year.
Mr. Geppi, who built the biggest comics distribution company in the country from a single store, said buying Baltimore isn't on his front burner. This weekend, for example, Diamond Comic is host to nearly 3,000 retailers, publishers and other industry players at a trade show and seminar at the Baltimore Convention Center.
But he said that his publishing background could help to improve the magazine and that he is "optimistic" that a deal can be struck.
"I think it has tremendous potential," he said. "I grew up in Baltimore -- in Little Italy. I have every reason to want that magazine to be as good as any city magazine in the country. . . . I think you can enhance anything with new, fresh approaches."
Diamond takes in approximately $250 million in annual revenue. Mr. Geppi has a $4 million stake in the Orioles.