The error in Aberdeen

December 16, 2007

Aberdeen's experience with a minor-league baseball stadium is a cautionary tale to any small town investing in an enterprise about which it knows little. By all accounts, Ripken Stadium has been a great success, as are the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Class A team that plays there, and the adjacent youth baseball academy. But it's been a hugely unprofitable situation for Aberdeen, which is losing about $311,000 each year, chiefly because a real estate development that was expected to be built next door (and generate substantial tax revenues) never happened.

The problem wasn't how much Aberdeen and Harford County borrowed to invest in the $18 million stadium - as with Maryland's other new minor-league parks, local government put up about one-third of the cost - but bad assumptions about how to pay off the city's debt. Putting faith in a speculative real estate venture was irresponsible and particularly costly for a city with a total $16 million annual budget.

That lapse in judgment was compounded in a smaller way by Aberdeen's more recent arrangement with Ripken's Tufton Professional Baseball LLC to handle special events at the stadium. Officials thought they had penned a deal that should have generated more than $90,000 for the city in 2006, but the contract's language says otherwise, so Aberdeen finds itself about $47,000 short.

That error appears correctable. Ripken officials say they're willing to renegotiate the special-events formula for future years - and will eventually be forced to because the agreement is set to expire by the end of next year. But that will not by itself resolve the issue of Aberdeen's stadium debt.

Fixing the larger problem is going to take a bit more effort and political will. A likely first step is for the city to begin charging a $2 parking fee at stadium events. That should generate more than $100,000 annually - if few thank-you cards from IronBirds fans.

City officials have also expressed interest in charging a tax on hotel guests (as Baltimore and every Maryland county except Harford already do). That could not only fix the deficit but also potentially allow Aberdeen to set aside money for future stadium repairs and perhaps slice a few pennies off the city property tax rate, which rose 33 percent last year. Unfortunately, opposition from state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County is likely to derail the proposal as it requires support from both the county government and the General Assembly.

Thanks to the planned expansion of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the region is destined for its share of growth, and it's hard to believe the land adjacent to the stadium won't eventually be developed. In the interim, compromise is required to secure a victory for Aberdeen's debt-encumbered residents. Surely, the city, the county, the Ripken organization and perhaps even Ms. Jacobs can supply the needed teamwork.

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