Minor league, major troubles

Years of flawed city decisions mean Ripken Stadium thrives while it generates unexpected losses for Aberdeen

Sun Special Report

July 14, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Greg Garland | Justin Fenton and Greg Garland,Sun reporters

Two hours before game time, fans were already streaming into Ripken Stadium for another season of baseball in Aberdeen. Friends and neighbors exchanged pleasantries as the smell of funnel cakes and the sound of John Mellencamp's "Small Town" wafted through the stands. The crowd gasped as fireworks boomed overhead, then cheered as hometown hero Cal Ripken, smiling broadly, tossed the first pitch.

For Ripken, the Hall of Fame-bound owner of the minor-league IronBirds, the Aberdeen project appears to be a resounding success. Every game has been a sellout since the 6,000-seat stadium opened in 2002. Companies such as Bank of America have paid to be sponsors. And at an adjacent baseball academy, youngsters learn the "Ripken Way" on ball fields that include one modeled after Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But even on days like this, when the city-owned stadium is packed, Aberdeen loses money.

The Harford County community owes $6.7 million in stadium-related debt, and millions in interest, on a payment schedule stretching to 2022. The city's stadium fund has posted operating losses that total more than $1 million since 2001, forcing Aberdeen to dip into its treasury.

"People who come to the games don't realize what we're dealing with," said Betsy Campion, head of the city's stadium management board, from her seat behind home plate during the June 19 home opener. "They see the stadium full, they buy food at prices in line with big league ballparks, and they think the city is a part of that."

The reason the city isn't sharing more richly in the proceeds is rooted in critical decisions made over the past seven years. Represented by part-time politicians and advised by well-meaning businessmen, Aberdeen took on a project as risky as it was ambitious for a city of just 14,000.

In closed-door negotiations, Aberdeen signed over to the Ripken businesses most of the money to be made from the baseball games. City officials had intended to cover the bills in other ways, including fees, taxes and a deal with Nottingham Properties to develop adjacent land. But the city's contract with Nottingham contained no penalty for delay. The land remains mostly acres of dirt.

Aberdeen officials, who were already struggling to balance the town's books and who raised taxes and other fees last year, have in recent weeks tried to get various Ripken enterprises to pay more toward the costs of the complex. The city's mayor has also considered hiring a financial adviser. Earlier this year, he floated the idea of selling the stadium but found that was not feasible.


Over the years, city leaders never fully made public the extent of Aberdeen's financial strains. However, interviews and a review of thousands of pages of records reveal that their disenchantment was growing behind the scenes. S. Fred Simmons, Aberdeen's mayor, expressed concerns while he was a member of the board that oversees the stadium.

"What I am about to say may sting a little bit," Simmons said in a 2005 e-mail to some of his fellow board members. "But I think it needs to be said.

"We were not present when the original deal, full of winks and nods, was formulated. ... We do not control either the income or the direction of marketing at the stadium. ... We have [a] dysfunctional relationship with our `partners' at the stadium."

Simmons concluded, "Municipalities, especially this one, shouldn't be in this type of business."

Former Mayor Douglas S. Wilson, who was defeated by Simmons later in 2005, defends the way the city handled the stadium complex during his tenure. "I still think we did the right thing. Hindsight is 20-20. The reason the city is so far behind is [certain elements] just didn't get built on time."

Memos and e-mails obtained by The Sun show the city has for years sought more money from Ripken entities whose payments have fallen short of the city's expectations. The two sides have talked periodically but have failed to resolve differences.

Ripken's business representatives maintain that the city hasn't formally complained and say that its financial difficulties stem from the stalled adjacent development. Chris Flannery, chief operating officer of Ripken Baseball, said its various enterprises have met their obligations.

"We've done all the things that we said we would do. ... To bring this into Harford County was a coup."

Neither Flannery nor the attorney for Ripken who helped broker the deals would discuss the negotiation process or the contracts' provisions. They also declined to discuss the organization's profits from the Aberdeen ventures.

Ripken, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 29, has said little publicly about the project's troubles. While in Bel Air for a parade thrown in his honor, on the same day the IronBirds season opened, he raised the possibility of making some adjustments.

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