Don't swing yet at pitch for stadium

An enthusiastic mayor teams up with a baseball hall-of-famer to convince the city to build a downtown baseball stadium.

The scene is Augusta, Ga. But the scenario has already played out in Aberdeen, Md. And according to reports in The Sun of Baltimore, Aberdeen is taking a financial hit as a result.

An Augusta committee headed up by Mayor Deke Copenhaver recently visited downtown stadiums in Greensboro and Durham, N.C., and members were very impressed with the vitality and atmosphere the facilities create. They are thinking Augusta could do the same thing on riverfront property along Reynolds Street next to the botanical gardens on the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame site.

Certainly the Aberdeen stadium is drawing plenty of folks.

"Every game has been a sellout since the 6,000-seat stadium opened in 2002," says the Sun.

Maybe that's because Baltimore legend Cal Ripken, who also owns the Augusta GreenJackets, is behind it - and has done a ton for promoting baseball and the city of Aberdeen, including holding a baseball academy where youths learn the "Ripken way."

"But even on days like this," the Sun reports, "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."

When the stadium was built, the city's entire budget was $7 million.

Earlier this year, the Aberdeen mayor who inherited the project flirted with trying to sell the stadium, but found it wasn't feasible.

The Sun says Aberdeen officials "never fully made public the extent of Aberdeen's financial strains," but that "their disenchantment was growing behind the scenes."

"Municipalities, especially this one, shouldn't be in this type of business," Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons said in a 2005 e-mail.

A key problem in Aberdeen is that the city relied on a nearby land development to cover the costs - but the development has yet to materialize.

In addition, says an Aberdeen official who spoke to us off the record, the city was clearly outgunned in negotiations. Ripken "has the best (sports) lawyer ever," the official said. "You would expect him to."

In contrast, city officials didn't realize how much revenue would be available from advertising, and didn't get the city a cut of it.

The Aberdeen official said no one from Augusta has asked them about their experience. "If (Mayor Copenhaver) ignores what's going on with the city of Aberdeen, that would really be a shame," the official said.

Copenhaver said he's been assured by the Ripken folks that the Sun articles were the result of a journalist with an ax to grind. Indeed, Chris Flannery, chief operating officer for Ripken Baseball, called the articles a "hatchet job."

"The city never said those things," he said.

He said Aberdeen is hurting from higher-than-expected infrastructure costs and the yet-to-materialize land development, but that city officials are generally happy with things.

"(The Sun) chose to focus on the bad news rather than the good news," Flannery said. "We're passionate about what we're doing here."

But the Aberdeen official we talked to said officials there were "real pleased with (the Sun reporters') articles," and that the newspaper had done extensive homework.

"I would say don't get into the sports facility business," the Aberdeen official said.

Does this mean Augusta shouldn't? Not at all. What it does mean is that Augusta needs to explore the idea of a riverfront stadium with eyes wide open. And should it come down to negotiating a contract, the city can't rely on its own resources, or even local attorneys; it needs the best in the business representing the city's interests.

The Aberdeen experience is a cautionary tale.

"We didn't have the right expertise," the Aberdeen official said. "And that's why we're in the situation we're in."

If Augusta decides to take the plunge, it's only right that all parties sink or swim together.

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Tue, 02/21/2017 - 22:08

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