Proposed $73 Million PawSox Stadium Sparks Fresh Debate

May 16, 2017

Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien touts the PawSox' plan for a stadium at the Apex site.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

The Pawtucket Red Sox are willing to contribute $45 million to the cost of a new $73 million stadium at the Apex site in Pawtucket, with the state and the City of Pawtucket paying an initial $38 million that would be paid back over 30 years through taxes and other revenue from the development.

During a sunlit afternoon news conference Tuesday at Slater Mill, not far from the team's envisioned site, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien hailed the proposal as a win-win that will keep the PawSox in Pawtucket while spurring a ripple of nearby economic development.

“This plan more than pays for itself," Grebien said. "It doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime of their current tax dollars and requires no new taxes or fees on anyone who doesn’t choose to go to the park. It is going to be self-sufficient."

Governor Gina Raimondo appeared ready to support the plan. In a statement, she said, "I've always believed the PawSox belong in Pawtucket, and my highest priority regarding any state involvement in a ballpark is to protect Rhode Island's taxpayers. The ballpark proposal that the City of Pawtucket and the team has put forward appears to pay for itself, and I credit Mayor Grebien and the PawSox for listening to Rhode Islanders and coming up with a radically different proposal than two years ago. I believe it merits a full public vetting as part of the legislative process."

The amount of state money being sought (about $23 million) is roughly $10 million less than the estimated cost of renovating McCoy Stadium, the current home of the PawSox.

But state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell scorned the idea of using public dollars on a stadium.

"This proposal is simply a bad idea," Bell said in a statement. "Rhode Island taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize a new ballpark. Rhode Island taxpayers are facing a budget revenue shortfall of about $100 million dollars. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is back tracking on his campaign promise to eliminate the car tax by saying he needs six years instead of five years to eliminate it. Governor Gina Raimondo is talking about the possibility of cuts to social services to balance the budget. Does Mattiello and Raimondo really want to explain to the voters how they postponed car tax relief and pushed for cuts to social services while giving millionaires $38 million to build a new ballpark?!"

Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson calls the latest proposal far better than the PawSox' failed Providence stadium quest in 2015. He thinks the state might be able to get a better deal, even if seeking that would heighten a level of uncertainty about the team's future.

“Obviously, the harder deal you make with the team, the more likely they are to try to move elsewhere," Matheson said. "That being said, there’s not that many other places around New England who are willing to put tens of millions of dollars into building a new stadium for a minor league team.”

Matheson said local officials in Worcester, New Bedford and Springfield have indicated they would not use a large amount of public dollars to court the PawSox.

"It should be pointed out that this is a deal that is not available to other businesses, still," he said. "Even though this is a better deal to the taxpayer than the previous one, it's still a sweetheart deal for the team in comparison to what every other type of business in Rhode Island gets. For example, if you want to open a McDonald's in Rhode Island, you don't get to say, 'we'll charge sales tax on our food, but we'll apply all of that sales tax to building our building or paying for our restaurant.' That's what's going on here."

Yet the PawSox are not as commonplace as a McDonald's, either. As the top minor league team of the Boston Red Sox, the PawSox have been linked with Rhode Island since the team began playing in Pawtucket in 1970.

The team has faced shrinking attendance at McCoy Stadium in recent years. If McCoy is abandoned, Grebien said the site's potential uses could include being a school or city government complex.

Supporters of the PawSox' proposal for the Apex site said the team's willingness to contribute more than half the cost of a new stadium is unusually generous by the standards of the International League. Grebien said the new ballpark will spur nearby development, helped by plans for a train station on the city's border with Central Falls. He said he expected the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to issue bonds to pay for the project.

According to the PawSox, "A 'Ballpark at Slater Mill' will be part of a larger downtown re-development project.  Together, the ballpark and land are expected to cost $83 million; thus, the PawSox would pay about 54% of the entire ballpark and land cost. Even so, the public would own the ballpark and the land, continuing the city’s 75-year practice of providing a public facility. In turn, the PawSox would then pay the highest rent in the International League, increasing their rent in 2020 to $1 million, with annual increases, and devote $500,000 annually from naming rights to help finance the ballpark."

Yet Stop the Stadium, a group that opposed the PawSox' failed attempt to build a Providence stadium in 2015, announced its opposition to the latest pitch.

"To sell this, the ownership group is resorting to an old-school trick used in decades of bad stadium deals around the country. They are pretending that it would be “revenue-neutral” -- that it would generate enough tax revenue to pay for itself. 'Revenue-neutral is basically a lie,' said Ethan Gyles, board member of Stop the Stadium Deal, 'For years stadium consultants have sold terrible deals by pretending that magic revenue would pay for them. Time and time again, cities have gotten burned.' "

A study recently commissioned by the PawSox and the City of Pawtucket projected that a new stadium at the Apex site will generate about $130 million in economic activity over three decades.

Team Chairman Larry Lucchino said the PawSox' proposal includes safeguards in case revenue falls below projections.

"Look at the details of the deal so that you can see the revenue that is generated to by the ballpark, by the ball club, the new revenue to the state that’s gonna be generated by the ballclub, the ballpark and the ancillary development and you’ll see there are cushions upon cushions and that should never occur," Lucchino told reporters.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio offered this statement on the proposal: “I am hopeful that the tradition of PawSox baseball will be preserved in Pawtucket through a partnership that is mutually beneficial to the team, city and state. Their new proposal will be thoroughly analyzed and reviewed, and the public will have the opportunity to make their voices heard, as part of the legislative hearing process in the Senate in the upcoming weeks.”

But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a champion of the PawSox' Providence stadium quest in 2015, remained silent on the team's latest proposal. He's considered the main question mark in building support on Smith Hill for the stadium.

The PawSox hope to win legislative approval for the project before the General Assembly ends its session next month.

Lucchino declined comment on whether a failure to approve the proposal would make the PawSox more likely to move to Massachusetts.

This post has been updated.