Ripken company, Aberdeen divided

City aims to stem stadium losses but is not able to renegotiate deal

December 11, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare | Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare,SUN REPORTERS

Aberdeen officials said last night that they have been unable to resolve a $47,000 dispute with Ripken Baseball over events hosted by the company at the city's minor league baseball stadium last year, the latest in a series of failed attempts by the city to restructure deals to stem operating losses.

The disagreement represents a broader problem for the city of 14,000, which has dipped into its treasury for years to offset continued operating losses brought on by contracts that failed to protect its interests. State leaders have urged Ripken Baseball to renegotiate deals with Aberdeen, but officials lamented at last night's City Council meeting that little progress has been made.

Betsy Campion, a Bel Air insurance agent and chairwoman of the city's Ripken Stadium management board, delivered the board's much-delayed 2006 annual report, saying Ripken's company refuses to negotiate, but that Aberdeen should "insist on payment as written." There will be discussions next month about future payments, she said.

"I'm disappointed to give this type of report," she told council members. "Hopefully, there will be a better resolution when I come back with numbers from [this year]."

Though the city has the right to host concerts, banquets or similar functions to generate cash, it hired Ripken's Tufton Professional Baseball LLC to book and stage such events in exchange for a fee. That contract has been reworked multiple times as the city attempts to maximize the revenue.

A spokesman for Cal Ripken Jr., whose minor league Aberdeen Ironbirds play home games in the 6,000-seat stadium not far from where the former Oriole grew up, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday. But he said this summer that the company is willing to "help the city get out of the city's problem" and that the company's $45,000 payment for nonbaseball events was more than it had to pay.

Figures presented last night suggest that Tufton lost more than $50,000 by hosting the events. Representatives from the company did not appear at the meeting to discuss them.

In 2000, Aberdeen took the lead in building and financing a minor league baseball stadium. Ripken's companies, which operate a youth baseball academy on adjacent, city-owned land, as well as the state and Harford County, helped contribute to the $18 million construction costs.

Officials had intended to repay debt through fees, taxes and a deal to develop a nearby retail and entertainment center. But the center has not been built, and city revenues from the other sources have fallen short of projections. Aberdeen owes $6.7 million on the project and is responsible for an estimated $2 million in future repairs.

Meanwhile, the city has been forced to use money from different city funds to cover operating shortfalls in its stadium fund, losses that have totaled more than $1 million since 2002, a review by The Sun found. Former leaders say the gamble was worth it.

Michael Bennett, who was sworn in as mayor last month, said the stadium should remain in the city's hands and that he hopes to get financial help from the county government and other communities.

In an attempt to drum up more cash, the stadium management board is studying options, including a $2-a-car parking fee.

City Council members appeared disgruntled about the lack of progress. Councilman Ronald Kupferman thanked Campion for a "thankless job."

And Councilman Michael G. Hiob bristled that Tufton representatives aren't offering more at this stage. "I don't think it's any concession on their part that they're just willing to talk," Hiob said.

Campion requested last night that the city appoint an attorney to fill a new vacancy on the stadium management board, which includes representatives appointed by the city, county and Tufton. Lonnie M. Ritzer, Tufton's attorney, is among the members.

After twice renegotiating to get more cash out of nonbaseball events, the city signed a three-year pact with Tufton in 2006 with the expectation that it would generate nearly $100,000 annually, based on Tufton's past success in hosting events. But the contract language was vague - allowing Tufton to deduct for "expense reimbursement from third parties, such as cleaning."

City officials, awaiting a $92,000 payment based on their estimates, received a check for $45,000 this year for nonbaseball events in 2006.

John Maroon, a spokesman for Ripken Baseball, said that the payment reflects a down year for events and was more than required.

"The [memorandum of understanding] was rewritten because the city wanted an opportunity to make more money when Tufton experiences success in booking nonbaseball events. 2006 was an unsuccessful year in that area, and Tufton ended up paying more than required by the MOU," Maroon said in an e-mail.

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