PawSox stadium backers, critics air views at first hearing on $83M plan

Ballpark opponents forced to wait nearly four hours to deliver testimony

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Senators on Thursday kicked off their examination of whether taxpayers should help fund a new $83-million Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, as dozens of supporters and opponents trekked to the State House to debate the project.

The seven-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing was the first of six planned over the next month to review the proposal, which calls for state and Pawtucket taxpayers to borrow $38 million to cover part of the cost of a new ballpark on the site of the Apex building. The team’s owners want to leave 75-year-old McCoy Stadium once their current lease expires, and are talking with other cities including Worcester about a potential move.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, has emerged as the strongest State House supporter of the ballpark, recently suggesting a vote could happen as soon as November. Ruggerio’s political allies in the building trades unions organized a major show of force for Thursday’s hearing, with an estimated 500 workers showing up to rally for the project. With dozens signed up to testify for and against, an overflow room had to be set up for the crowd.

But opponents were forced to wait hours to be heard, after nearly the entire first four hours of the hearing were taken up by a parade of stadium supporters including Pawtucket and PawSox officials, mayors, union heads, and Blackstone Valley community leaders. The first critic of the ballpark deal – Pat Ford, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Rhode Island – did not speak until just before 10 p.m. The hearing didn’t wrap up until just past 1 a.m.

“I certainly feel for the folks who came out and have to work in the morning,” tweeted Sen. Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat and skeptic of the project.

At least some senators are hearing from constituents unhappy about the ballpark. “I come from South Kingstown, so you can imagine a lot of the emails I’m getting about this,” said Democratic Sen. Susan Sosnowski. Another Democrat, Providence Sen. Frank Ciccone, said he’s also getting emails from critics.

Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino and their backers offered a variety of reasons to back the ballpark. They said the team is covering a larger share of the cost than in most minor-league ballpark deals; that borrowing will be covered by tax revenue the stadium generates; that it will help spur economic development in Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley; that it is not comparable to the failed 38 Studios deal; and that preserving McCoy would cost too much to make it a wise investment.

“This represents a better investment than mere repair of McCoy,” said Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. “It certainly represents a less expensive undertaking than the full overhaul of that facility. And yet the return on that investment is likely to be greater. We are likely to see increased attendance, increased attraction to out-of-state visitors, and at this location, the Ballpark at Slater Mill has the potential to have a much more catalytic effect on the surrounding area.”

Grebien, a Democrat, argued that the state has already invested significant amounts in other communities, citing facilities such as the Rhode Island Convention Center, the Providence Place mall, the Ryan Center and Fort Adams.

“Now it’s Pawtucket’s time,” he said, adding that it “would be another crushing blow to the state of Rhode Island” if the team left.

Lucchino also acknowledged the team’s 2015 push for a new ballpark in Providence was “a colossal mistake” that turned many members of the public against the PawSox. “It’s not a PawSox ballpark,” Lucchino insisted of the new proposal. “It is a Pawtucket ballpark in which the PawSox will be a principal tenant.”

Opponents offered their own litany of reasons why lawmakers should reject the ballpark proposal. They said the team’s wealthy owners should not receive taxpayer money for a profit-making business; that the state and Pawtucket can’t afford to borrow $38 million amid high and rising deficits; that a state-of-the-art new stadium is not necessary when McCoy could still be repaired; and that the underlying analysis of whether the ballpark bonds will be covered by tax revenue uses questionable numbers.

Sam Bell, a progressive activist who is a leader of the grassroots group Stop the Stadium Deal, provided committee members with a 12-page analysis that argued a “conservative estimate” puts the team owners’ contribution to the project at negative $59 million if the absence of property taxes and other factors are included.

“We have analyzed this deal, and we believe it to be a shockingly bad deal for Rhode Island and an especially bad deal for Pawtucket,” the group concluded.

Also submitting a lengthy case against the ballpark project was Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias, who nearly defeated House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in last fall’s election. In a 13-page analysis, Frias offered 24 reasons the stadium proposal should be rejected – with footnotes.

“Taking on public debt without voter approval for the benefit of a private company in the hopes of spurring economic development is quite comparable to 38 Studios,” Frias wrote.

Committee members asked a number of questions, some of which focused on what Pawtucket would do if ancillary development does not happen fast enough or generate enough revenue for the city to cover its share of the ballpark borrowing. Grebien said city officials are working on alternative options.

The next Senate hearing on the PawSox plan is Sept. 26 at Tolman High in Pawtucket.

Speaker Mattiello has been much cooler toward the PawSox stadium proposal than Senate President Ruggerio, leaving doubts about the ballpark plan’s prospects in the House of Representatives. The House Finance Committee will hold its own hearing on the plan Oct. 10, a spokesman said Thursday.

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