Ripken Stadium expensive for city

Aberdeen mayor considers a sale

Sun exclusive

March 25, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

The minor league Ripken Stadium, which opened to acclaim and sold-out games five years ago, has proved to be such a financial drain to the small town of Aberdeen that the mayor now wants to sell it.

Mayor S. Fred Simmons says that he has had conversations with several potential buyers but that the most promising involve the stadium's namesake: hometown hero Cal Ripken Jr., who owns the team that plays there, as well as a sprawling youth baseball operation headquartered nearby.

"We're figuring out ways to untie this Gordian knot, to figure out just how much money it would cost the buyer so the city could get out of it debt-free," Simmons said, referring to the legendary, intractable knot that Alexander the Great is said to have cut in half. "I think it's a challenge that rivals the size of the deficit that it brings."

The team pays only $1 a year for use of the stadium and keeps virtually all of the money generated from games. But officials say the biggest hit has come from an adjacent development project that was counted on to help pay for the stadium but has been delayed. Each year Aberdeen loses several hundred thousand dollars - a significant problem for a city with an annual budget of only $16 million.

Completed in 2002, the stadium became an instant draw and point of pride for the city of 14,000. Named for the Harford County city's most famous family, the stadium was seen as a logical extension of the tradition that began when Ripken's late father taught his two sons baseball at a home a few miles away, where their mother still lives.

Those sons, of course, went on to be major leaguers - for a while making up half of the Orioles' infield while their father was the manager. A museum downtown memorialized the legacy of the family and of Ripken, who became one of the nation's most beloved sports figures when he surpassed Lou Gehrig's record of consecutive games played. Ripken will be inducted to the Hall of Fame this summer.

The home team, the Aberdeen IronBirds, are a short-season Single-A Orioles affiliate, and their stadium is projected to be the hub of a unique complex of youth baseball taught "the Ripken way" and the driving force behind a new development of homes and shops, including a movie theater.

But the city's commitment to the stadium project - annual payments on about $4.8 million in state bonds - has proved difficult to meet, with expenses outpacing the money the city makes on the facility and forcing city leaders to dip into the general fund.

Simmons said he is "dead serious" about selling the stadium, but is still trying to untangle the original agreements and determine the feasibility. His ideal buyer would be Ripken and his company, Tufton Professional Baseball LLC.

But he said he has also received two unsolicited offers from private individuals, whom he declined to name.

This month, Simmons began negotiations in earnest with Chris Flannery, whose work for Ripken includes overseeing the Aberdeen projects. In an interview Thursday, Flannery acknowledged that the city has encountered problems and said that Ripken wants to offer assistance.

"We partnered with the city, and we're not the type of organization that takes that responsibility lightly," Flannery said. "As things perhaps change over time, because you learn that things are different, you have to react to them."

Flannery said Ripken would be interested in purchasing the stadium if the right deal could be worked out. "I think it's a good solution for us," he said.

In total, the baseball and non-baseball events bring in about $260,000 to the city, mostly from the proceeds of a tax on tickets. But Aberdeen's operating expenses - as well as interest and principal payments to bondholders - have pumped the city's losses up to as much as $485,000 in a single year, according to city figures.

Those losses have prevented the city from making any contribution to a "sinking fund" for future repairs to the stadium that planners envisioned would be necessary. The city is responsible for capital maintenance, or long-term infrastructure repairs and upgrades at Ripken Stadium, and a consultant last year identified $2 million in repairs that will need to be made over the next five to 10 years, including $410,000 urgently needed to replace faulty handrails.

Aberdeen officials, led by Councilman Michael G. Hiob, are seeking a room tax at city hotels to help create more cash but have been blocked by members of Harford's legislative delegation.

"The deal they made with the Ripken thing is one of the worst deals they ever made, and now they expect the taxpayers of Aberdeen to pay for their ineptness," said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "That was a terrible deal, for very little return. It could've been a gold mine."

Publicly funded stadiums have long drawn the ire of taxpayers and economists, but rarely have local officials conceded defeat the way Aberdeen seems prepared to do.

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