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PawSox to request $23M from state for new stadium at Apex site

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – The Pawtucket Red Sox are planning to ask state taxpayers for $23 million to help pay for a proposed ballpark in downtown Pawtucket that would keep the team in the city until at least 2050, the team announced Tuesday afternoon.

According to a summary released by the PawSox, the team’s owners would pay $45 million towards the $83 million cost of the new publicly owned stadium at the site of the Apex building downtown. The state would kick in $23 million, and the city of Pawtucket would contribute the remaining $15 million. The stadium would be called the “Ballpark at Slater Mill.”

The total cost of the stadium would be $73 million, with the land costing an additional $10 million, according to the PawSox. The new plan comes two years after the team abandoned a widely criticized request for $120 million from taxpayers to build a new stadium in downtown Providence.

The proposal would need to be approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Gina Raimondo in order for state funding to be secured. The team says the state’s $23 million investment would be repaid over approximately 30 years using revenue generated from the ballpark, including sales, property and hotel tax receipts. The Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency would float bonds to cover the taxpayer share, and the state would pay back the bonds for its portion over 30 years.

“The tax revenues that will be generated by the ballpark, by the people who use the ballpark, by the visitors who come to the ballpark, will be more than sufficient to cover any debt service,” PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino said.

The PawSox would also pay for any construction overrun costs.

In a unique twist, the PawSox also said that team owners “who live or who own separate businesses in Rhode Island will voluntarily donate annual PawSox distributions or dividends, if any, over the next five years to three Rhode Island charities: the Pawtucket Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation, and/or the PawSox Foundation.” Paul Salem, a Providence Equity Partners executive who recently purchased a stake in the team, was credited with the idea.

Raimondo expressed optimism about the proposal Tuesday, after previously indicating she wanted the plan to be “revenue-neutral” for the state. She said the plan put forward by the team “appears to pay for itself.”

“I believe it merits a full public vetting as part of the legislative process,” Raimondo said. She also called the proposal “much better” than the Providence proposal she had rejected.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio described himself as “hopeful” after the announcement. “Their new proposal will be thoroughly analyzed and reviewed, and the public will have the opportunity to make their voices heard, as part of the legislative hearing process in the Senate in the upcoming weeks,” he said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello – who was a strong supporter of the abandoned Providence stadium proposal – said the speaker is waiting on a recommendation from the governor before taking a position.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said there is no backup plan if the General Assembly doesn’t pass the plan this legislative session.

“We’re confident this is going to pass,” Grebien said. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t pass.”

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell quickly slammed the plan, saying in a statement, “This proposal is simply a bad idea. Rhode Island taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize a new ballpark.”

Noting the state’s budget picture has weakened in recent months, Bell said: “Does Mattiello and Raimondo really want to explain to the voters how they postponed car tax relief and pushed for cuts to social services while giving millionaires $38 million to build a new ballpark?!”

Also quickly coming out in opposition to the proposal was Stop the Stadium Deal, a grass-roots group. “Revenue-neutral is basically a lie,” Ethan Gyles, one of the group’s board members, said. “For years stadium consultants have sold terrible deals by pretending that magic revenue would pay for them. Time and time again, cities have gotten burned.”

Official said plans for the stadium could also include a hotel, apartments and retail space as part of a larger redevelopment of downtown Pawtucket.

“It will be more than a ballpark,” PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino said. “It will be a city park, open year-round. It could have football in the autumn, hockey in the winter, concerts in the summer, and joggers every day when the team is out of town.”

Lucchino said private developers are working on plans for the hotel and apartments, but the goal is to get the ball rolling on the stadium construction as soon as possible.

After the Providence stadium plan fell through, the team debated whether to build a new stadium or remain at Pawtucket-owned McCoy Stadium, which is in need of significant renovations. An economic impact study released last week indicated the Apex site would be a better investment compared to another site, dubbed “Tidewater,” on the river.

The five parcels of Apex land are currently owned by Andrew Gates.

Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College who advised Mattiello on the stadium deal in 2015, argued the key for any transaction is making sure it’s truly revenue-neutral for taxpayers, by ensuring that the underlying forecasts for how much tax revenue the ballpark will generate are on target.

“On the surface, this looks like a good deal,” Zimbalist said. “If you can just get revenue neutrality, and you get the PawSox on top of that and you get the additional activity that’s generated around the stadium, it’s a plus for the community in social and cultural terms,” he said.

Asked how this stadium proposal looks compared with others he’s reviewed, Zimbalist said, “The appropriate comparison is to AAA ballparks elsewhere, and this level of [financial] contribution from the team is above what’s typical.”

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, who has pushed hard to keep the team in Pawtucket, celebrated the announcement and called it a “new chapter in our city’s history.”

“Virtually everything about this proposal is the opposite of where we were two years ago,” Grebien said in a statement. “Now, we are on the verge of completing one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.”

The team says it hopes to be playing baseball in the new stadium in 2020. As part of the deal, the team would commit to remaining at the ballpark until at least 2050, with a 30-year lease extension possible.

“Just as Ben Mondor saved the day 40 years ago, this plan saves the day for the next 30 years,” said PawSox Vice-Chairman Mike Tamburro, a longtime team executive, referring to the late Pawtucket industrial who saved the team in the 1970s.