House Finance Committee Expected To Vote Thursday For PawSox Stadium Legislation

Jun 20, 2018

Speaker Mattiello and Finance Chairman Marvin Abney, during a recent briefing with reporters.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

In a significant breakthrough on an issue that has consumed attention in Rhode Island for years, the House Finance Committee is expected to vote Thursday in favor of legislation that could create a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket.

Plans for the vote mark a change from the uncertainty that has publicly marked the PawSox issue for months.

House spokesman Larry Berman said an amended bill will be considered by the Finance Committee during a meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday.

Precisely how that bill will be amended remains unclear for now. During a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien requested two changes to a proposal unveiled by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in May: allowing the use of fixed and/or variable rates in borrowing money for the envisioned stadium and incorporating language in an eminent domain element to explicitly state the goal of adding jobs and improving the economy.

Mattiello has described the legislation he supported as a way to shield taxpayers from risk; bonds issued by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Authority would be paid back by tax revenue from the stadium and a surrounding area.

If approved by the House Finance Committee on Thursday, the PawSox stadium legislation could move to the House floor as soon as Thursday.

These developments come as Worcester, the second largest city in Massachusetts, has reportedly stepped up its pursuit of the PawSox, the top minor league team of the Boston Red Sox. Yet Pawtucket gives the PawSox access to a larger market, as well as its traditional fan base, and the team's actions have signaled a reluctance to move from its longtime home.

It remains unclear if the Rhode Island Senate, which passed its own stadium legislation in January, will sign off on the House legislation ahead of the expected end of the legislative session Friday. Yet it would be surprising if the Senate, considering its more unabashed support for the stadium and the construction jobs that would come with it, stood in the way of a stadium deal.

"The Senate will need to review the legislation should the House pass it," Senate spokesman Greg Pare said earlier on Wednesday.

If the stadium plan moves ahead of the end of Rhode Island's legislative session, it will mark the end of a chapter of a PawSox story that has consumed attention in the Ocean State for years. The ownership group that bought the top minor league team of the PawSox intially planned to move the team to Providence, but alienated many Rhode Islanders with its approach and called off that effort in 2015.

Then the team returned in 2017 with a Pawtucket proposal, sparking more sharp debate on the pros and cons of the concept.

Earlier on Wednesday, the speaker's office said Mattiello was still reviewing legislative details about the proposed PawSox stadium.

On Tuesday, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien urged the House Finance Committee to support legislation meant to keep the PawSox in Rhode Island. "My message to you is simple: please pass this legislation," Grebien said.

Grebien, joined by lawyers John Partridge and Ted Orson, asked the House Finance Committee to sign off on two changes to stadium legislation.

Grebien said a stadium near Slater Mill would offer "a new stunning gateway" for Pawtucket while boosting the city north of Providence and keeping PawSox-related spending in Rhode Island. Grebien said the PawSox help generate $2.5 million in annual taxes, and $2 million in spending on vendors, while serving as Rhode Island's third-largest tourist attraction.

Critics like Pat Ford of the Rhode Island Libertarian Party accuse the team of not providing enough information about anticipated stadium revenue, and question why the state should have a role in helping to support a private business. Another witness said using the Pawtucket Redevelopment Authority to finance the project, rather than the state, will cost an additional $20 million in interest, due to the PRA's lower credit rating.

But Grebien expressed concern that the team will leave for Worcester if Rhode Island lawmakers don't act ahead of the end of the legislative session. In response to a question from a lawmaker, he also expressed confidence that bond buyers will be interested in buying bonds for the stadium, even though the risks may make the bonds less attractive than some other investments.

“I’m very comfortable in if we get this passed that we’re going to be able to get them and keep them here, but Worcester is still stepping up more and more," Grebien said. "You know, they’re putting more and more on the table, but I believe that the relationship – their commitment to Rhode Island – is what’s going to keep them here.”

PawSox consultant Guy Dufault said the team is awaiting the final disposition of stadium legislation in the General Assembly before responding.

Mattiello said his plan would reduce risk for taxpayers for financing a stadium. It would use tax revenue from the stadium and a surrounding area to pay back bonds.

This story has been updated.