PawSox stadium legislation introduced, will be vetted this fall

(Image provided by PawSox)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders signaled Tuesday they plan to take up the proposal for a new, $83-million Pawtucket Red Sox stadium later this year, after Gov. Gina Raimondo announced her support for a revised version of the plan.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley introduced the revamped bill on Tuesday, and said his committee will consider it this fall. The Senate is not yet committed to holding a special session to vote on the legislation, spokesman Greg Pare said.

“I think keeping the PawSox in Pawtucket and in the state of Rhode Island is really important to our future,” Conley told reporters at a briefing about the bill Tuesday afternoon. He emphasized that the legislation will “absolutely, positively not” be voted on in the few days left before lawmakers adjourn their regular session.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said a companion bill will be introduced in his chamber by members of the Pawtucket delegation, and he said it “will be fully reviewed by the House Finance Committee this fall.” But he also stopped short of committing to a special session this fall to vote on the plan.

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, who helped negotiate the PawSox deal on behalf of the Raimondo administration, sent a letter Tuesday outlining his reasons for supporting Conley’s legislation. “This plan offers a responsible way to keep the ‘Paw’ in the PawSox,” he wrote.

“As we conduct our work in Commerce, we aim to achieve two objectives: to promote economic prosperity and to protect taxpayers,” Pryor wrote. “The proposal for a Ballpark at Slater Mill would accomplish both objectives.”

The new bill maintains the same financing split as the original plan.

State taxpayers would contribute $23 million to a new publicly-owned ballpark in downtown Pawtucket, to be paid back with tax revenue from the stadium and a surcharge on ticket sales. The city of Pawtucket would contribute $15 million, and the PawSox would pay $45 million, with $33 million of the team’s portion paid through a 30-year lease agreement.

Crucially, the new legislation spells out that Pawtucket is backstopping its own bonds by pledging its state aid – language that Raimondo said gave her the confidence to support the bill. The team has committed to covering any cost overruns.

The plan to build a new stadium at the Apex site in downtown Pawtucket was on life support earlier this month after the General Assembly gave it a lukewarm reception and Raimondo said she could not support it because it left state taxpayers on the hook for Pawtucket’s debt.

The new bill explicitly says Pawtucket will guarantee the bonds that the city floats to pay for its portion of the stadium. The Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency (PRA), a quasi-public body, will float the 30-year bonds for both the city and state portion of the stadium debt.

A second bill submitted Tuesday authorizes the PRA to issue the bonds by expanding the power of all the state’s municipal redevelopment agencies “to finance the construction of projects for residential, recreational, commercial, industrial, institutional, public, or other purposes contemplated by a redevelopment plan,” according to a summary.

Under the plan, both the city and state expect to pay back the bonds using sales and property tax revenue generated from the PawSox, visitors to the ballpark and other development expected to crop up around the new downtown site.

The bill also says the state would receive funds from a special ticket surcharge, but Conley said the price of the surcharge has not yet been determined.

The PawSox issued a statement Tuesday evening thanking the governor and her team for supporting the proposal and referencing a “final resolution” in the fall. “While there are no guarantees of successful adoption of the legislation, we are well aware of the importance of this milestone,” the statement said.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien previously said team executives were only committing to negotiate with Rhode Island until July 1, and after that would consider moving the club elsewhere. A spokesman for the team said they would not be taking questions beyond the statement.

“All I can say to the PawSox is there’s not a better place in the universe than Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for them,” Conley said. “And for them to go anywhere else would be foolish.”

Raimondo threw her weight behind the legislation Monday – something Mattiello demanded in order for the House to even consider the proposal. “At the end of the day, I don’t think this is going to cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island anything,” she said.

Pryor agreed, saying he is confident the revenue from the ballpark would cover the state’s $23 million share of the project. “We expect it to exceed it, but we’re confident that it will cover it,” Pryor said.

“That’s a dream,” said Rep. Patricia Morgan, the Republican House Minority Leader. “We don’t have this money. I’ll tell you who does: the owners of the PawSox.”

Morgan sits on the House Finance Committee that will consider the bill in the fall. She said she doesn’t want taxpayer dollars funding the stadium, even if that means the team decides to leave the state for a sweeter deal.

“That would be unfortunate, because they do have a loyal base here,” she said. “But it is a private company. They have to look out for themselves and we have to look out for ourselves.”