Scott MacKay Commentary: PawSox Providence Dream Field Becoming Nightmare

Sep 11, 2015

Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

The plan for a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox in Providence has hit a roadblock. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses how this field of dreams turned into a nightmare.

The new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox emerged shortly after the New Year as a group of savvy business leaders who were going to do Rhode Island a favor by keeping  the Boston Red Sox top farm team in the Ocean State.

The plan was to build a gleaming new stadium on the reborn downtown waterfront of state’s historic capital. This new attraction would be built on land that once was shut off to development  because Interstate 195 sliced through it.

Among the new owners were familiar Rhode Island natives and business mavens, people like banker Terry Murray, CVS chief Tom Ryan and lawyer Jim Skeffington. The parent club was in deep; then-Red Sox CEO  Larry Lucchino was a prime player in the ownership team.

It’s never polite, or even fair, to speak ill of the dead. Yet, from the start the public face of this deal was the late Skeffington, who died at ag 73 while jogging as this project was in gestation. It was his dream to bring minor league baseball to his hometown; he ushered reporters and community leaders around the site that he could see from his office in a tower overlooking the skyline.

The public relations roll out was a disaster. Skeffington played this one as if it was still 1982 and his friend and ally Joe Garrahy was governor. Skeffington’s strategy was to get all of the elites ``on board,’’ beginning with then Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo. He met with her in December, before she took office, and she told him that she didn’t want to be the governor who lost the PawSox to a nearby state.

A master power broker during his prime, Skeffington was a big player in many public projects over the years, including the Rhode Island Convention Center, Fidelity Investments  and the Providence Place Mall. In days of yore, squeezing the support of political leaders, the business and labor poohbahs and the bankers was enough to push just about anything through the Ocean State’s insular political culture.

Then Skeffington unveiled his opening request. Free land for the stadium, relief from Providence property taxes and a taxpayer subsidy of $120 million over 30 years. All this in a state still reeling from then-Gov. Donald Carcieri’s 38 Studios fiasco, which has taxpayers still on the hook for millions in state promises to a failed video game company.

He underestimated the pall cast by 38 Studios, which has hovered over state economic development projects for five years. It’s easy to say Rhode Islanders ought  to grow up and put this mess behind us. That’s difficult when each week brings the water-torture drip of new media revelations about the deal. The latest, from Channel 12,  is that disgraced former House Speaker Gordon Fox, now lodged at taxpayer expense in federal prison on corruption convictions, met with 38 Studios principal and onetime star Red Sox pitching hero Curt Schilling even before Carcieri signed on as a booster.

Fleece me once, shame on you. Now, taxpayers and voters seem to be saying fleece me twice shame on me.

Political support, never robust, seems to be melting away faster than summer. Raimondo has muted her comments in support of the deal and so has Mayor Jorge Elorza. All politics really is local, especially in parochial Rhode Island. Raimondo lives on Providence’s East Side, her political base. And Elorza would have lost the election to Buddy Cianci had it not been for voters in that leafy neighborhood near Brown University. So when bumpers  on Thayer Street are sprouting `no new stadium’ stickers faster than Bernie 2016 signs how can the governor and mayor back the plan?

Ok, so the view from the Statehouse is that the House speaker is the state’s most powerful pol. That’s true, but there is a limit to any speaker’s authority.  He (there has never been a she), can’t do anything without the support of his members. Speaker Nick Mattiello was an early booster, but, he too has backed away. The reason – his reps  don’t support it.

House Republican leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, says bluntly that he hasn’t met a constituent who isn’t allied with the building trades unions who supports the Providence stadium. He says none of the Republicans in the House back it. And no Democrat has organized a pro-stadium caucus.

What’s more, the Providence non-profit elites are wary.  Brown President Christina Paxson was an op-ed page supporter early on. Now Brown wants more than $10 million for a small strip of land that would be  left field, raising even more questions about the project’s viability.

The Providence Preservation Society has announced opposition. And many Providence residents want to see a public park on the stadium land. That sounds great, but where does cash-strapped City Hall get the money for park upkeep? A stroll through the jewel that is Roger Williams Park shows years of neglect have tarnished the once-cherished greenery.  Ditto for such downtown open spaces as Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park, where efforts are underway at a clean-up. Still, If General Burnside dismounted his bronze horse today, he’d be in danger of stepping on a hypodermic needle.

Another Jewelry District spot mentioned as a possible stadium venue is the former Victory Plating Land. That's off the table now that the Lifespan hospital network has announced it is buying that real estate.

There is still a dwindling window of opportunity for the new owners to negotiate a new deal that takes taxpayers off the hook. But not much. The new stadium vision may not be dead, but it is on life-support.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our On Politics Blog at RIPR.org