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Worcester and PawSox sign letter of intent to build $90M stadium

August 17, 2018
Photo | Zachary Comeau
Photo | Zachary Comeau
A rendering of a proposed ballpark, which would host the Pawtucket Red Sox beginning in 2021.

Worcester is proposing a ballpark in the Canal District for $86 million to $90 million to attract the Pawtucket Red Sox to the city, officials unveiled Friday.

The AAA minor league baseball team and the city have signed a letter of intent to build a 10,000-seat park to open by 2021, officials from the team and the city announced at a press conference in City Hall. The deal still requires approval from the city and other entities like minor league baseball's International League.

Construction would start in July.

The city-owned park would anchor what is envisioned as an 18-acre, 650,000-square-foot mixed-use development costing more than $200 million, including the costs of the ballpark itself. That construction would include two hotels totaling 250 rooms, 225 residential units, and 65,000 square feet of retail space. A 450,000-square-foot first phase would open by 2021.

Boston-based developer Madison Properties would be responsible for building those ancillary developments.

Kelley Square would be remade with Massachusetts Department of Transportation funds. The state would also pitch in $35 million for a 350- to 500-space parking garage and unspecified infrastructure improvements. It wasn't clear if those funds require legislative approval.

After months of wrangling over details and negotiating with the team, Friday's press conference was a chance for city officials to celebrate a deal with a team whose name is known by sports fans across New England.

"Today is a historic day for Worcester," Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said.

The city administration will request approval to borrow $100.8 million for the project. The team would also make a $6-million contribution toward the ballpark construction.

Of Worcester's borrowed $100.8 million, the city said the team's annual rent payments will cover $30.2 million total over the 30-year lease. The full terms of the lease were not disclosed at the press conference.

The ballpark and related development relies in large part on increased tax revenue to offset those payments.

"In essence, the project pays for itself," City Manager Edward Augustus said.

City officials are even expecting a 2022 surplus of $741,442 in 2022 on total project revenues of a little more than $3.7 million to cover estimated debt service and operating costs of nearly $3 million.

Pawtucket Red Sox Chairman Larry Lucchino said he was impressed by support by Worcester officials and fans who sent what he said was 10,000 postcards urging him to relocate the team to Worcester. He lauded what he said would be a much larger development anchored by the park.

"This is more than a ballpark," Lucchino said.

The stadium would tentatively be called Polar Park, after the longtime Worcester business Polar Beverages, Lucchino said.

The design and construction of the ballpark would be overseen by Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith, who partnered to create Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 and who together oversaw a decade of improvements to Boston's Fenway Park starting in 2002, the team said.

The Worcester stadium, modeled after Fenway Park, would be built on about six acres along Madison Street as the centerpiece of efforts to bring new development to an area of the city that's seen new restaurants along Green and Harding streets but still remains largely underdeveloped.

The ballpark would be built on what is mostly vacant land owned by the company Wyman-Gordon, with additional land along Washington Street currently used by Autobody Supplies & Paint and Medstar Ambulance. Table Talk Pies has a cafe and distribution building next door, which would remain, according to renderings shown Friday.

The ballpark site itself is small compared to other minor league parks in New England. LeLacheur Park in Lowell, home of the Lowell Spinners, is also about six acres. Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, N.H., is on about 8.7 acres.

Worcester's proposal said the ballpark would host at least 125 year-round events each year including 70 Worcester Red Sox home games, road races, concerts, college and high school games, fireworks and other community-oriented events, according to the press releases.

Friday's announcement is a culmination of nearly a year of behind-the-scenes work by the city to put a proposal together to land the top farm team of the Boston Red Sox. It's also a potential blow to Pawtucket, which has been home to the team since 1973. If the team does move to Worcester, it would still play in Pawtucket for the next two seasons, the team said.

The Canal District Alliance and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce issued separate statements on Friday afternoon lauding the deal as transformative for the neighborhood.

But such publicly funded deals have had their critics, with many sports economists calling stadium-related development overstated.

"You can make a pretty credible argument that if none of this investment would have happened without the park and now it's happening, it's an instance where you can say the investment is worth it," said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

For hotel rooms, for instance, there isn't any proof that people stay at a hotel because of a minor league team, he said.

Matheson called Worcester's ballpark proposal an aggressive move for not only development in the city but also getting Worcester's name out to more people.

"This is definitely your all-in play. This almost as much branding as it is any type of direct economic development," he said. "You can say, 'Look this is a development of Worcester on the rise.' You're using the stadium as a focal point."

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The Pawtucket proposal, which was signed by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo in July after more than a year of deliberation among Rhode Island and Pawtucket lawmakers and officials, has Rhode Island ponying up $23 million, Pawtucket putting up $15 million and the team putting in the remaining $45 million.

However, that bill didn't include a state guarantee. Instead, the Pawtucket project lives or dies on the success of the project and not the state's taxpayers. A special tax increment financing district for the ancillary developments around the proposed ballpark would pay for the project.

That deal came after Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello refused to let a Senate-backed bill that included taxpayer protection hit the House floor last winter.

Mattiello issued a statement after Friday's press conference lamenting what appears to be the team's departure from the state.

"It is very unfortunate and extremely disappointing that the PawSox have decided to leave Rhode Island," he said. "The state's proposal contained strong protections for the taxpayers and shifted the risk to the investors. It was responsive to the concerns of the taxpayers who made it clear that they did not want to accept the risk contained within the original proposal."

"It is disheartening the PawSox did not show the same loyalty to the city of Pawtucket and the state of Rhode Island as the taxpayers and fans have shown to them for many decades," he added.

In a statement, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said he learned of the team's departure through media reports.

He said the city and team had been negotiating for three years until Thursday night.

"Sadly, we had to learn through media reports, like everyone else, that the ownership group had decided to take our team and move it to Worcester in light of substantial subsidies provided by Worcester and the State of Massachusetts," he said.

Grebien added that he looks forward to seeing more details of the proposal. Pawtucket officials will take the weekend to giest the "limited information that was released" and hold a press conference early next week.

"The Worcester process is unlike the highly vetted and transparent Rhode Island process that protected taxpayer," he said.

Attached to the email distributed by Grebien's office was a letter dated Aug. 17 from Lucchino himself to Grebien informing him of the team's decision.

Lucchino referenced multiple setbacks in Rhode Island's legislative process to secure a new stadium deal despite Grebien's efforts to work with state legislators to sweeten the state's deal.

However, those efforts came too late, Lucchino said.

"As I said in our meeting on Monday, Aug. 6, 'Where have you been?' That's not directed at your personally, but at all of those involved in the process."

"The state's delays cost Pawtucket dearly," the baseball executive said.

Photo | Zachary Comeau
Mayor Joseph Petty, PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino, City Manager Edward Augustus and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito join other officials in announcing that the team would be relocating to Worcester.
Photo/Zachary Comeau
A rendering released Friday shows where a ballpark would fit into the Canal District. Downtown Worcester is out of view to the north of the image shown in the rendering.
Photo/Zachary Comeau
A rendering of a proposed ballpark to host the Pawtucket Red Sox. The team reached a letter of intent
Photo/Grant Welker
An aerial view of the Canal District ballpark site. The park would be built in the lower left of the photo, along Madison Street and a raised rail line.