Stadium delays create concern

Baseball complex named after Ripken sees slow seat sales

July 26, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

With one important deadline missed and another approaching, Aberdeen's $25.7 million baseball complex remains a field of dreams.

Ground has not been broken for the 6,000-seat Ripken Stadium, planned as the home of the Aberdeen Arsenal minor league team and a youth baseball academy. A July 15 deadline to begin construction of the complex -- which officials hope will generate millions in tourism dollars -- has come and gone.

Concern is growing as Aug. 15 nears, the new date to begin turning the 100-acre pasture into a park for the new expansion team in the Atlantic League. So far, the construction company, Baltimore Contractors Inc., has agreed to honor its bid, which came in $1 million under budget.

"I'm very concerned," said Del. Charles R. Boutin, a Harford County Republican and former mayor of Aberdeen. "It would be a tragedy to lose this now."

The baseball complex, at the old Long farm off Route 22 near Interstate 95, is seen as a boon to Aberdeen and the surrounding area. Officials estimate it will generate an estimated $26.5 million in economic activity annually for the area.

Even if construction of the stadium -- named after hometown hero and Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. -- does start this summer, it's not likely the facility will be ready for opening day in April.

"We're running out of time," said Aberdeen Mayor Doug Wilson. "The chance of opening next year runs slimmer."

The setbacks are all about seats. Sales of sky boxes and luxury boxes at the stadium have struck out, for the most part.

As of yesterday, no contracts have been signed for the six sky boxes, although five are reserved, said Keith Lupton, senior vice president of Maryland Baseball Limited, which owns the team. The sky boxes each sell for $50,000 or more.

Firm commitments have been received for only five of the 36 luxury boxes -- each with eight balcony seats overlooking the field and access to an air-conditioned lounge. They sell for $15,000 for a minimum five-year contract. Seventeen are reserved, Lupton said.

"The understanding is [the stadium] won't break ground until 25 of those are signed," said Peter Kirk, chairman of Maryland Baseball. "A key piece is commitment to the boxes."

Maryland Baseball needs the business community to purchase the deluxe seating to demonstrate financial support for the project, Kirk said.

Other funding is in place. Maryland Baseball will provide $2 million, the city of Aberdeen and the county will jointly pitch in $7 million, with an additional $7 million to come from the state, which has already invested $700,000 in the project. Ripken, part owner of the team with Maryland Baseball, has contributed $9 million.

"Cal has gone way, way beyond what businessmen normally do," Kirk said. "He's giving back to the community, to his hometown. Cal wants it in his hometown."

The Ripken name is a powerful marketing tool -- one the city and team hope to capitalize on to stir up interest in seat sales from the corporate sector.

"It's a bedroom community," Wilson said. "The connection here is the name Cal Ripken. The question is, will the business community go along with the name?"

Boutin said he is encouraging Maryland Baseball to proceed with the stadium when 20 boxes have been sold. "Risk it and move dirt," he wrote Kirk recently.

"The number of people hanging back probably will buy," Boutin said. "They need to see brick on block."

Plans call for a state-of-the art complex that will hold 10,000 spectators. In addition to the 6,000 stadium seats, grassy areas will provide overflow seating.

A picnic section will accommodate 500 fans and a playground with a full-size carousel and recreation equipment will be available. The setup also will allow kids to play at being groundskeepers and concessionaires.

The play area will be the largest one built anywhere at a sports facility, Kirk said, adding: "We found children's attention spans at a sporting event is one inning."

The ambitious youth baseball academy is expected to get off the ground next year. Plans call for six diamonds as well as dormitories and recreation areas. The Cal Ripken World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds will be played there.

"To have this in Harford County is phenomenal," said Boutin, who tries to remain optimistic about the project despite the delays. "It's going to be a tremendous economic boost for the county."

If the project falls through in Harford, at least one other jurisdiction is waiting to make a pitch for it. "It might happen in Baltimore County," Boutin said.

But Baltimore County officials, who acknowledge meeting with Ripken Stadium principals several weeks ago, say they are not vying for the stadium at this time.

"We expressed we had no interest in luring the stadium away from [County Executive James M.] Harkins in Harford County," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "They were told if negotiations fell through we'd be willing to sit down and talk with them."

No specific sites were discussed, she said.

For now, the Harford boys of summer play their home games at Harford Community College, where attendance has been sparse.

Kirk, who also cultivated the Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury minor-league teams, says the slow startup is typical.

"It's proceeding as each of the other stadiums we've been involved in proceeded," he said. "It's always murky until it's completed."

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