Scott MacKay Commentary: Time To Tamp Down Paw Sox Stadium Debate

Apr 17, 2017

Debate rages in Rhode Island over the Pawtucket Red Sox stadium issue. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this is a good time for all involved to take a deep breath.

Every Rhode Island school child learns that Pawtucket was the Silicon Valley of the 18th Century, the city where the American Industrial  revolution began. What’s left of that era today are moldy memories and the Slater Mill historic site.

More people – probably a half-million or so this summer – will flock to Pawtucket to see the Boston Red Sox top minor league team , the Paw Sox, play at McCoy Stadium than tour Slater Mill or view a play at the city’s other celebrated cultural attraction, the Gamm Theater.

Pawtucket’s city government values the Paw Sox and wants to keep them. Rhode Island baseball fans want the team to stay.  And the team’s owners have abandoned their original plan to move the franchise from Pawtucket to a new stadium in downtown Providence.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza never spent any political capital trying to steer the stadium to the capital city. Once the late Jim Skeffington, the Paw Sox first president, asked for a taxpayer subsidy of more than $100 million for a new ballfield, and the `No New Stadium’ bumper strips appeared on the East Side, Elorza and Gov. Gina Raimondo walked away.

But Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien has been huddling with the team’s new leadership, including Paw Sox president Larry Lucchino, a veteran major league baseball executive who has been deeply involved in stadium construction, including the historic renovation of beloved Fenway Park.

The negotiations among representatives of Raimondo’s administration, Grebien and the Paw Sox have yet to produce a concrete proposal. But the torrent of criticism continues, as skeptical Rhode Island taxpayers,  burned by the 38 Studios fiasco, are wary of anything deal that includes a public subsidy.

Rhode Island’s tiny, colicky Republican General Assembly caucus is trying to make political hay out of any stadium plan. Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere of Westerly called any potential state subsidy a ``risky, risky proposal’’ even though there is no specific proposal.

Raimondo’s Commerce Secretary, Stefan Pryor, is working behind the scenes to ensure that any state investment in a new stadium is minimal or limited to surrounding infrastructure, such as road and utility improvements.

Among the ideas the negotiators should explore is whether a new stadium overlooking the Blackstone River in downtown Pawtucket could be self-supporting. For example, how much money could be raised by a modest tax per ticket, say a dollar or two? Could some portion of the meals taxes generated by sales of concessions be allocated to help pay off a stadium?

So far, the Paw Sox have not had any public offers from other New England cities willing to build them a new ballpark. But if a new Pawtucket stadium falls through, a city, likely Worcester, would probably try to lure the team.

Rhode Islanders should realize that 38 Studios has nothing to do with a stadium proposal. Yes, Curt Schilling was a Red Sox pitching standout, but his video game company wasn’t related to baseball; it was all about his adolescent dream of becoming a big-time video maven.

Anyone who thinks that Raimondo, who is gearing up for reelection, will embrace any stadium plan that looks like a bad deal for taxpayers believes in the Easter Bunny. Ditto for House Speaker Nick Mattiello, who barely won reelection in his Cranston district last year.

The Paw Sox are a civic treasure, great baseball at affordable prices. Yet a ballpark does not generate many good jobs; pumping beer taps and cooking fries does not a living wage make. So the owners must understand that they won’t get the same state incentives as say, General Electric.

But Rhode Islanders have to realize that the Paw Sox are not a charity and that Ben Mondor is not walking through that turnstile. Owners want a new ballpark, not a renovated McCoy Stadium,  that will draw more paying fans and provide space for more functions.

Now is a great moment to allow the negotiations to marinate. Let’s see what the Paw Sox and the pols come up with. At this point, listening to the `Just say no’ stadium jeers means a crumbling McCoy Stadium with no team and Rhode Island summers with no AAA baseball.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at out `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org