The General Assembly ended a years-long legislative debate about an envisioned PawSox stadium in Pawtucket by approving Friday what supporters called enabling legislation that will shield taxpayers from risk. But it remains unclear if the top minor league team of the Boston Red Sox will support the concept.
“We saw this proposed legislation for the first time only this morning, so it would be premature to comment further without having studied its terms and ramifications," PawSox spokesman Bill Wanless said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the City of Pawtucket to see if this new proposal is feasible, viable, and permissible."
Voting at around 11:30 p.m., the Rhode Island Senate approved the PawSox legislation on a 26-6 vote. That was about five hours after the House passed the measure on a 53-13 vote. Gov. Gina Raimondo is expected to sign the legislation.
The legislative support for an envisioned $83 million stadium at the Apex site in Pawtucket resolves a major hurdle.
Yet it's unclear if the team may find a more attractive offer from Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, or if other stumbling blocks will emerge during the underwriting process for a Rhode Island stadium. Worcester has not made a public offer for the team, and Rhode Island is generally considered a larger and more lucrative market for the team.
Pawtucket elected officials and lawmakers who've supported the push for a new ballpark for years were visibly excited by the forward motion on Smith Hill. Opponents raised a series of objections, including how the legislation was passed on what turned out to be the next to last day of the legislative session.
The quest for a new PawSox stadium began after a new ownership group bought the team after the death of Ben Mondor in 2010. But the campaign for a Providence stadium in 2015 alienated many Rhode Islanders. By 2017, supporters regrouped and said a new ballpark in Pawtucket would keep a source of tax revenue in Rhode Island while helping to catalyze economic development.
But the ghost of 38 Studios, a video game company that failed in 2012, was never far away. During the House floor debate, Republican lawmakers said Rhode Islanders have faced repeated broken promises about how they won't be on the hook for some other entity's failure -- and they expressed skepticism that a new PawSox ballpark will be any different.
Plans call for the stadium to be financed through $45 million from the PawSox and $38 million in borrowing that would be paid back from tax revenue from a district encompassing the stadium and surrounding parcels.
Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick), a candidate for governor, said that will result in needed tax revenue being taken from other needs in Pawtucket.
“To do this they are going to draw a line around a huge part of their city and they are going to forego property taxes," Morgan said. "They need those property taxes, but they’re going to give them up for 30 years. And what they get instead is an iffy revenue stream."
Supporters countered by touting a new PawSox stadium as a way to draw more fans to the baseball team, maintain an important source of tax revenue, and foster economic growth in the area near downtown Pawtucket.
A document distributed to senators said the use of special revenue bonds will increase borrowing and interest costs by tens of millions of dollars. But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and other supporters said that is worth it to shield taxpayers from risk.
“The only recourse is to the revenue source that is pledged," Mattiello said, meaning that investors would have to accept a loss if their purchase of bonds doesn't work out as planned. "The state of Rhode Island, the City of Pawtucket, our taxpayers, our citizens and the Redevelopment Agency are not liable on these bonds.”
After holding months of public hearings across the state, the Senate passed its own stadium plan in January -- one that Mattiello said included too much risk for taxpayers.
The speaker unveiled his own plan in May. In discussing the approach, some senators expressed irritation that the House plan increases costs and was being left to resolve in the waning hours of the legislative session, but they said it was still worth supporting.
The PawSox have played at McCoy Stadium since 1970. The team's ownership has said that a new ballpark, surrounded by more attractions, is needed to boost attendance and that repairs needed at McCoy would constitute a significant part of building a new ballpark.
Lawmakers plan to return to the Statehouse for the expected end of the legislative session Saturday.