Scott MacKay Commentary: Will Raimondo Go All-Out On New PawSox Stadium?

May 19, 2017


The sun is out, baseball bats are cracking, and Rhode Island is embroiled in another ballpark saga that appears headed to extra innings. In this game, Raimondo is going to have to come out of the bullpen with a strong closing performance, or a new field for the Pawtucket Red Sox isn’t likely.

That’s the message from last week’s Smith Hill reaction on the new plan for a $73 million Fenway Park replica in seen-better-days downtown Pawtucket. The PawSox ownership group has offered a $45 million investment towards the cost of building a new park overlooking the Blackstone River.  But the project still would need a $38 million injection of public money from the state and city of Pawtucket.

Supporters say it would be self-sufficient, generating enough money in taxes from concessions, and ticket sales, along with  naming rights, to pay off public bonds. The new plan is a far cry from the original ask for a stadium in downtown Providence that would have meant a $120 million taxpayer subsidy. That was brought to a screeching halt after a public outcry.

This time, veteran baseball executive and ballpark visionary Larry Lucchino has taken over the negotiations. He and his team have crafted a scaled back deal to keep the Boston Red Sox top minor league franchise in Rhode Island and spur development in Pawtucket’s long neglected downtown. Lucchino is no Curt Schilling; at 71, he’s a onetime Washington, D.C. super lawyer who has been intimately involved in building modern, retro baseball stadiums that have put fans close to the action and boosted urban neighborhoods. His track record includes  Camden Yards in Baltimore, Petro Park in San Diego and the renovated Fenway in Kenmore Square.

Rhode Island being Rhode Island, the boo birds are out. There are the politicians attacking from the left and right. The state’s Republican Party is hammering away, as is Sam Bell, a self-styled progressive Democrat who is class-baiting the ``millionaire’’ owners as leeches asking for taxpayer money that ought to go to state social services.

Rhode Island is lucky that, at this point, the owners don’t have any public offers from cities in Massachusetts to build a stadium. But if the Statehouse pols are silly enough to summarily slam the door on this proposal, don’t be surprised if Worcester, New Bedford or Fall River roll out a welcome mat.

House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston, who represents a conservative suburban district that supported Donald Trump, is wary of the stadium plan. It’s easy to see why – there isn’t much in it in for his city or district. Speakers are supposed to have safe districts. He doesn’t, so he isn’t sticking his neck out this time.  Mattiello supported the 2015 Providence stadium plan  He feels he got burned when it crashed.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, is enthusiastic. He has a reliable district and is steeped in the politics of the building trades unions, which pant after the jobs a new stadium would generate.

That leaves Raimondo. She so far has been walking down the middle of the road, which in this case is a good way for the stadium to become road kill. She hasn’t endorsed the deal, but does say it would be good for Pawtucket and protects taxpayers. Her  economic advisors have helped craft it.

She is correct about Pawtucket, a historic factory town that hasn’t had much state government support of late.  While the state has invested in Providence (Convention Center, mall, fixing up Roger Williams Park, 195 land), Warwick (Airport), Newport (Fort Adams improvements) North Kingstown (Quonset Point) and Smithfield (Fidelity), little has been done for Pawtucket. (The politics of this should be simple for Raimondo; except for Providence (65 percent) and Central Falls (66 percent), no community gave her a greater 2014 election plurality than Pawtucket (52 percent).

Her economic czar, Stephan Pryor, has been involved in the negotiations all along. So she has been informed of the progress of the proposal. Why can’t she say yes, no or let’s tweak it?

So far, she appears not to be ready to take the leap. Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz says at this point she ``supports the framework’’ and ``believes the deal deserves a full public vetting.’’

Raimondo doesn’t want to be the governor who lost the PawSox. And she surely doesn’t want to be known as the governor who shepherded another disastrous taxpayer giveaway, a la 38 Studios.

Sometimes being governor means assuming the mantle of leadership. Then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun got the Green Airport rebuild done in the 1990s because he poo-poohed the naysayers. Fidelity came to Smithfield and the Providence Place Mall was built under then-Gov. Lincoln Almond because he refused to cave to the usual `no, never’ attitudes of too many Rhode Islanders. (At the last minute of the Fidelity project, Fidelity chief honco Ned Johnson nixed having a deal  that would have required a project labor agreement and a 100-percent union workforce. Almond sat down with top labor leaders, then-House Speaker John Harwood and construction magnate  Bill Gilbane and worked out a solution that barred a PLA but resulted in mostly union building trades members being hired.)

It’s time for Raimondo to get out of the dugout.  So, governor, what is it – yes, no or keep working the deal? You owe Rhode Islanders an answer.

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