Scott MacKay Commentary: The PawSox Baseball Move to Providence: Good or Bad?

Mar 27, 2015

The debate over moving the Pawtucket Red Sox from McCoy Stadium to a new ball park in Providence is raging. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for serious study, not hyperbole.

McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, the current home of the PawSox
Credit RIPR FILE

Tis the season of renewal: Easter, Passover and daffodils. Along with the longer days comes the return of baseball to New England. It may be hard to believe after our  harsh winter, but in two weeks the season opens at Fenway Park in Boston and at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket.

Along with mountains of snow, this winter brought word that sent shivers through Rhode Island’s baseball world: The new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox, long the Boston Red Sox top minor league team, seek to move the team to a new stadium to be built on Providence’s downtown waterfront.

Pawtucket isn’t pleased about this, naturally. The birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution has faced hard times in recent decades, its manufacturing foundation hollowed out.  Now, the departure of the PawSox will further erode the economy of this proud yet faded city. Six-hundred thousand or more fans would no longer throng the city if the new deal wins approval.

Pawtucket’s loss could be Providence’s gain. A new stadium on the former 195 land could serve as a magnet for economic activity in the heart of the capital city. The new owners of the team, which include Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino and Providence power broker James Skeffington, want to build a new stadium to replace the aging McCoy.

So far, there has been too much hype and not enough clarity. So let’s take a break from the media  cheerleading. And a hiatus from the silly naysaying of some of the state’s politicians, most prominently State Rep. Partricia Morgan , R-West Warwick, who is comparing a state subsidy for a new stadium to the fiasco that became 38 Studios.

Lucchino is not  Curt Schilling, a retired ballplayer with no businesses experience who had an adolescent dream of running a video game company. Lucchino has been deeply involved in construction and renovation of such wonderful ball parks as Petco Field in San Diego, Camden Yards in Baltimore and the improvements at Fenway Park, the historic jewel  box in Boston’s Back Bay. All of those venues have spawned economic development in their surrounding neighborhoods.

Yet the dream of the 195 Commission and many in Rhode Island’s political and business hierarchy has been to use the 195 land, which taxpayers have spent millions rehabilitating for 21st-century knowledge industries that would bring high-paying jobs to the college-rich capital city. A stadium in Providence would do little more than shift economic activity six miles from McCoy Stadium. The seasonal jobs at minimum wage that a ball park would bring, such as pumping beer and selling popcorn, are not going to revive the city’s withering middle class or attract the educated young. And there are just 72 home games a year and perhaps a hand full of Brown University football games. How much in taxpayer subsidies should be spent on a stadium that will be buried in snow drifts four or five months of the year?

Andrew Zimbalist a Smith College professor, is one of the foremost baseball economists in the country. He says, in general, that taxpayer subsidies for a stand-alone stadium with little else nearby "tend not to pay off economically."

Yet, Zimbalist says that there are psychic values to having a baseball franchise. As those of us who love baseball can attest, teams create community and civic pride. A new stadium could be a venue for high-school state championships and clinics for the young.

Seth Yurdin is the Providence city councilor who represents downtown and the nearby Fox Point neighborhood. He says his constituents have many concerns about the plan, including noise and traffic. He also questions whether a stadium is the best use of land that has been in the planning stages for years as a high-tech and medical catalyst for well-paying jobs. A struggling city could also use an industry that would add to the tax-base of a city already mired in long-term tax break deals and hundreds of acres of land that is not taxable because of non-profit colleges, churches and hospitals.

Let’s not let a misdirected sense of crisis capitalism reign. Some have pointed for the need to get cranes in the air and quickly develop the now-idle 195 land. Problem is, this land just recently had the infrastructure and utility work needed to facilitate development. Allowing any developer who comes along with a deep pocket to get a piece of this land is beyond foolish.

Case in point: Newport, our wonderful tourist attraction city on Aquidneck Island. When the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet sailed away in the 1970s, a city desperate for investment allowed just about anything on the downtown waterfront, with few restrictions and scant requirement to provide parking. The result: summer-long traffic jams downtown and a cluttered waterfront.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has struck a reasonable note of caution. Yet, her administration ought to be watched closely on this one. Pawtucket officials thought they were dealing with her economic development team in good faith, only to discover through a Channel 12 television report that she met with Skeffington and learned of the proposal even before she took office. And some of the new owners, most prominently retired CVS CEO Tom Ryan and retired banker Terry Murray, have been among Raimondo’s top campaign contributors, forking over thousands to get her elected.

What is needed now is a careful cost-benefit approach. The focus should be on how much the taxpayers will be on the hook to help build a mostly privately-financed stadium. Pawtucket also deserves state money to finance the demolition of McCoy and put something in its place that would attract economic activity.

Let’s ensure that civic pride and a collective love of baseball don’t trump reason. The 195 land has long been envisioned as a job-creating incubator for our city-state. We shouldn’t let the primrose path of home runs and high-fives distract us. Once this treasured land is filled, it is gone forever.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org