PawSox Debrief: Outlook Remains Uncertain For New Pawtucket Stadium

Jun 26, 2018

Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien speaking in 2017 during the team's launch of its proposal for a stadium at the Apex site.
Credit Ian Donnis/File Photo / RIPR

The Rhode Island General Assembly ended its 2018 session on Saturday. One of the top issues throughout the session was the fate of legislation to help create a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket. Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter Ian Donnis spoke with RIPR's Chuck Hinman about where things stand on that proposal.

Q: Ian, bring us up to speed. Where do things stand with the PawSox and a potential new stadium in Pawtucket?

A: On Friday, both chambers of the General Assembly, the House and the Senate, passed a bill that could help create a new ballpark in Pawtucket. But it’s still not clear if the stadium is going to happen. That’s because the PawSox say they only got their first look at the legislation last Friday, and they need more time to review it. In a statement, the PawSox say they will work with the City of Pawtucket to see if the proposal is – quote – “feasible, viable, and permissible.” The team is expected to hold a meeting about that with Pawtucket officials later this week.

Q: How much would the stadium cost, and where would the money come from?

A: The stadium would cost about $83 million. The PawSox would contribute about $45 million, about $33 million of that through borrowing on bonds issued by the Pawtucket Redevelopoment Authority. The remaining balance would also come from those bond sales.

Q: Is the stadium a good idea?

A: Well, that depends on who you ask, of course. Pawtucket officials see a new stadium at the Apex site as an opportunity to spark economic development and keep a signature attraction in Rhode Island. Republican lawmakers and other opponents say the wealthy owners of the PawSox should pay for their own stadium. Critics also say the financing plan for the ballpark could take tax revenue away from other needs in Pawtucket.

Q: Now that the PawSox legislation has passed the legislature, what are the potential stumbling blocks?

A: Well, let’s remember that the Rhode Island Senate passes its own separate PawSox stadium bill back in January. That was after months of public hearings around the state. But Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello raised concerns at the time about the Senate plan. Mattiello said said he needed to be convinced that a majority of Rhode Islanders supported the stadium proposal. Then in May, Mattiello offered his own ballpark plan. That’s the one that won approval last week in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Q: How is Mattiello’s plan different from the one approved by just the state Senate back in January?

A: One of the key differences is how the stadium would be financed. A special kind of revenue bond would be used as part of that process, and bondholders would be paid back by tax revenue from in and around the envisoned stadium. Speaker Mattiello says the bondholders would have to accept the risk that come with buying the bonds, like the possibility that the stadium may produce less revenue than anticipated. He says if things went south, the state, the city of Pawtucket, and taxpayers would not face any liability. But this approach could add up to $87 million in borrowing costs for the stadium. And that’s a big part of why the PawSox is taking team to review the proposal.

Q: What about Worcester. Is It possible the PawSox could still leave Rhode Island?

A: Yes, it is possible. Worcester has yet to make a public offer for the PawSox. But the expectation is that Worcester’s offer will be more generous to the team. At the same time, the PawSox have been in Rhode Island for almost a half-century. And the thinking is that Rhode Island offers a bigger and more lucrative market for the top minor league team of the Boston Red Sox.

Q: Are there other factors influencing the situation?

A: Yeah. It’s hard to separate Speaker Mattiello’s cautious approach on the PawSox issue from how he won re-election as a state rep in 2016 by just 85 votes. A number of Rhode Islanders have taken a more cynical view of the state since the failure of the video game company 38 Studios in 2012. So there have been mixed views from citizens on the PawSox stadium and whether the state should be involved in that kind of project. Meanwhile, Speaker Mattiello’s Republican opponent from 2016, Steve Frias, announced Monday he’s taking another shot at ousting Mattiello.

Q: When will it become known whether the PawSox are staying in Rhode Island or leaving for Worcester?

A: That’s not entirely clear. But it seems unlikely the team would make a public announcement ahead of the end of the PawSox season in early September.

Q: Given all this, how’s the outlook for a new PawSox stadium being built in Pawtucket?

A: Well, it’s kind of ironic given the uncertainty that has dominated this issue for a long time now. But my sources think it’s still about 50-50 whether the PawSox stay in Rhode Island or go to Worcester.