Raimondo, Ruggerio warm to PawSox plan; Mattiello keeps distance

(Image provided by PawSox)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two of Rhode Island’s top three state leaders are making positive noises about the proposed new taxpayer-subsidized PawSox stadium in downtown Pawtucket, but the other one is keeping his cards close to his vest.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, both suggested Wednesday they are inclined to support the plan rolled out a day earlier. The team has not yet put forward formal legislation, though, and both said the details will need to be reviewed once that happens.

By contrast, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is keeping his distance from the new plan – after being the most vocal supporter of the team’s previous proposal, a widely panned pitch in 2015 for a downtown Providence stadium that would have required a much bigger taxpayer investment.

While Raimondo stopped short of formally endorsing the new stadium plan Wednesday, the governor told reporters she will “encourage” Mattiello and other lawmakers “to take a hard look at it.”

The team’s owners are “putting up the majority of the money and they’re making a real commitment to Pawtucket and they’re agreeing that they’re not going to take profits for the first handful of years, and if they do they’ll contribute that to the Pawtucket Foundation or the Rhode Island Foundation,” she said.

In a statement, Ruggerio called the new plan “a vast improvement” over the team’s 2015 proposal. “Risk to taxpayers is minimal, and the investment from the state, even in a worst-case scenario, would be less than making needed repairs at state-owned McCoy Stadium,” he said. “The initial analysis from the team suggests the project pays for itself and will likely generate revenue for the state.”

“A new stadium would make an impressive gateway as motorists come into the state from the north,” Ruggerio continued. “It also has the potential to be a catalyst for the economic rebirth of downtown Pawtucket, similar to the way moving rivers sparked the Providence Renaissance. It will put Rhode Islanders to work, and keep an affordable, family entertainment option and longtime Rhode Island tradition in Pawtucket.”

Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman, however, again declined to discuss the substance of the PawSox announcement.

“There has been no request made to the House for any legislative approval for anything to do with the PawSox, nor has there been any requests to the House for the state to commit to any money,” Berman said. “This is an initiative from the governor and her Commerce Corporation, so any requested legislation would come from the governor’s office.”

Raimondo suggested the team and the city will be responsible for putting forward the formal legislation for the deal, though Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor will continue to play a role in the ballpark negotiations. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien’s chief of staff, Dylan Zelazo, said they are “actively drafting” the bill and it would be “coming soon.”

The plan outlined Tuesday envisions a project costing $83 million, with $73 million spent on the ballpark and $10 million spent to buy the land that currently houses Apex. The team is proposing that state and city taxpayers cover $38 million, with the team picking up the rest, and estimate the public portion will be repaid over time by tax revenue generated by the project.

The new PawSox plan has quickly drawn criticism from many of those who panned the last one, including Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell, who said Wednesday he disagreed with the entire concept of a taxpayer-subsidized sports facility.

“That’s not the way it should work when we’re 50 out of 50 in just about every category,” Bell said. “We cannot afford to give fat cats money for a venture like this. It’s a shakedown. … There is no proven positive impact when you give money to publicly financed stadiums. We shouldn’t be that stupid.”

Bell shrugged off the possibility the PawSox could seek greener pastures if the new plan is rejected. “If they leave, they leave,” he said. “I’m a huge baseball fan. I would hate to see them go. I love the idea of having a replica Fenway. But money-wise, it doesn’t work. We have to think about the taxpayers first.”

Ruggerio disagreed.

“While I await the legislation so it can be reviewed, I believe this proposal has the potential to be mutually beneficial to the team, city and state,” he said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook