Ripken Baseball, owners of three minor league teams including the Augusta GreenJackets and Aberdeen Ironbirds, have been pushing for development along the Savannah River at the former Georgia Golf and Gardens site for more than five years.
President and CEO Glenn Tilley and Jeff Eiseman, the vice president of sales and marketing brought Mayor Michael Bennett to help dispel accusations that Ripken Baseball left Aberdeen in financial trouble when the team joined with the city and state to build a stadium in 2002.
“We have a great relationship with Ripken Baseball. Ripken Baseball has a great relationship with us,” Bennett said. “Things are moving forward, and I expect them to continue to move forward. I would wholeheartedly endorse and recommend Ripken Baseball to you all. With the amount of new energy and new commitment that they can bring to your community, I think you can’t go wrong.”
Bennett spoke in front of a group of about two dozen Augusta Rotarians, city leaders and media at Enterprise Mill. The Ripken party was originally scheduled as guest speakers at an Augusta Rotary Club luncheon, but flight issues in Charlotte, N.C., delayed their arrival.
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, Richmond County Democratic Party Chairman Lowell Greenbaum, Development Authority of Richmond County Chairman Henry Ingram and Augusta Sports Council Executive Director Brinsley Thigpen were among the invited guests.
Eiseman said the meeting, set up by the Rotarians, allowed Ripken Baseball to clear up misconceptions and rumors. The downtown stadium plan hasn’t seen much progress since it was proposed more than five years ago.
“There’s always been the rumors that have been floating around out there, and I guess part of it was just kind of eating away at us because we weren’t addressing them and we weren’t getting out in front of it. Then these stories start to take on a life of its own,” Eiseman said. “We knew that we needed to reset the dialogue. The world has changed since 2006, and we recognize that. We didn’t want to be the bulls in the china shop coming in here and making crazy demands and trying to shove a project down people’s throats.
“We really just wanted an opportunity to be heard and have the people that are elected to have an opportunity and a say in helping create an entertainment destination that will unify the community. That’s the vision that we have and we just needed to make sure not only that we share that vision but that people understood exactly what it was that we’re proposing.”
The Aberdeen stadium was funded equally between the city, state and Ripken Baseball, Bennett said.
Bennett disputed a 2007 story published in The Baltimore Sun that claimed Aberdeen loses several hundred thousand dollars a year because of the stadium, despite selling out every home game in franchise history.
“As a citizen at the time, I can tell you that the city folks were not that happy with the things that were written. Most of us knew that the things in the article weren’t correct,” Bennett said. “Yes, the city has debt there. We’ve always had debt there. It is what it is. We were part of the process of building the stadium and we knew there would be debt and things are moving forward.”
Bennett said Aberdeen did hit financial hard times because of economic factors but said Ripken Baseball was not to blame.
“Things were not going that well for the city just because we had folks that were more interested with borrowing money to pay for things that an operating fund should do,” he said. “I think that we’ve gotten the financial sitauation of the city straightened out and moving forward very nicely now.”
Eiseman, who has acknowledged the GreenJackets would be interested in a different location besides the downtown riverfront property, declined to give specific funding details on a potential stadium, saying the project hasn’t moved far enough along.
“A lot of this has to come down to the site selection, what’s available in that process to be able to do that, what phase gets built, what’s part of the first phase,” he said. “At this point, it’s still early for us.”
Augusta Commission members voted in June to allow city Administrator Fred Russell to “develop a transaction plan” for a multipurpose stadium complex. Russell has met with Ripken Baseball representatives and said he hoped to “get a few of the location issues tied down” before exploring funding options.