New PawSox bill has more revenue for Pawtucket, more requirements for team

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled a revised bill to fund a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium, with supporters arguing the changes will better protect taxpayers in Pawtucket and statewide.

The bill and an accompanying 67-page report were released by the Senate Finance Committee at an afternoon hearing, though no vote will be taken until next month. It comes after the panel held a series of hearings around the state to solicit feedback on the controversial proposal for a partly taxpayer-funded new $83-million ballpark.

“I am particularly grateful to all Rhode Islanders who took time out of their lives to discuss with the committee the pros and cons, the criticisms, because that’s what we hope has made this the best product it can be,” Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, D-East Providence, said at the hearing.

No PawSox representatives were in their reserved seats at the Senate Finance hearing, but team spokesman Bill Wanless said a number of them had been watching on television. “We, like the rest of the public, have now received this information, and we will take the time necessary to consider it,” Wanless said.

Among the 11 changes: Pawtucket would receive half the proceeds from the stadium’s naming rights, estimated at $250,000, and revenue from a surcharge on premium tickets; the team would be fined if at least 50,000 square feet of ancillary development is not complete when the ballpark opens; and the team would be required to pay all daily operational maintenance costs at the stadium as well as at least half of annual capital expenditures on it.

The revised bill also eliminates an expansion of eminent domain; requires the team to sign a 30-year lease; raises the maximum borrowing allowed for the stadium from $71 million to $85 million. And it orders the team to use its own $12 million in equity to pay for initial construction costs; to cover any cost overruns; to allow the facility to be used as a public park; to use energy efficient design; and to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

State Sen. Lou DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat and member of the finance panel, said the committee had spent 29 hours holding public hearings on the ballpark bill in recent months. “Clearly all my concerns and all my questions have been answered,” DiPalma said.

The underlying proposal under consideration calls for a new stadium to be built in downtown Pawtucket on the site of the Apex department store. The estimated $83-million cost would be split between the team ($45 million), the state ($23 million) and the city of Pawtucket ($15 million).

While the Senate appears likely to pass the stadium bill early next year, it’s fate in the House remains uncertain. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has expressed skepticism about the ballpark plan in the past. In a brief statement Thursday, Mattiello said the revised bill will get “a full and fair public hearing” in the House if it passes the Senate.

Critics were not satisfied. Even before the new Senate bill came out, Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell issued a statement raising questions about the team’s finances and pointing to its belated disclosure of lobbying spending. He said the situation reminded him of the failed 38 Studios deal.

“Rhode Island taxpayers deserve to know all the facts about the PawSox’s financial condition and the extent to which the PawSox ownership has attempted to influence legislators,” Bell said. “Until the PawSox’s profit and loss statements are made public and until a thorough investigation of the lobbying efforts by the PawSox and their allies is completed, the General Assembly should not even consider voting on any legislation for the PawSox.”

The revised bill debuted days after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker expressed support publicly for Worcester’s efforts to lure the PawSox there, though no details about that city’s proposal have been released and it remains unclear how much state money the Baker administration would be willing to put behind it.

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