PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — When public officials and developers broke ground on the massive Pawtucket soccer stadium project known as Tidewater Landing in August, they all vied for the spotlight.
One day after the city revealed it’s pumping the brakes on issuing public bonds to help build the stadium, they’re all shying away.
Target 12 first reported Wednesday city officials would hold off on issuing $27 million in public bonds for the soccer stadium — which they’d previously hoped to have done by February.
“Given the market challenges of the last year, including a global pandemic, rising interest rates, tighter market conditions, and a looming banking crisis, the state financing and private debt components of the capital stack have not made fiscal sense to close to the date,” Pawtucket spokesperson Grace Voll said in a statement Wednesday.
On Thursday, 12 News requested interviews from the leading developers and public officials on the project. A Gov. Dan McKee spokesperson said he was out of town and unavailable for an interview via Zoom. Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said he was unavailable to talk while at a conference in Warwick.
Developer Fortuitous Partners and R.I. Commerce Secretary Liz Tanner were unavailable. Pawtucket lawmakers Sandra Cano and Karen Alzate declined to comment. (Cano is also director of the city’s economic development agency and just recently announced she’s running to replace outgoing Congressman David Cicilline.)
The silence from proponents, however, was not shared by critics of the soccer stadium project. R.I. Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias told 12 News public officials should cancel all public financing into the project and leave the funding for the developer to deal with on its own.
“You’re talking about high construction costs, high interest rates, this is not going to work, it’s time to pull the plug on ‘Pawsoccer’ and protect the taxpayers,” Frias said. “I’m happy they finally woke up and realized what a bad idea this was from the beginning.”
Former R.I. Department of Administration director, Gary Sasse, who has long questioned the financial viability of the deal, questioned why anyone would be surprised by the latest development.
He suggested the writing was on the wall since last summer when the governor had to step in during a R.I. Commerce Corp. meeting as the tie-breaking vote to approve the controversial funding plan. The vote allowed the project to move forward with the current funding plan, which is now under question.
“Is anybody surprised the Soccer Stadium is a financial mess?” Sasse wrote on Twitter. “This contingency was exposed by half the RI Commerce Corporation before the Gov cast the tie breaking vote. The deal could not meet the smell test in a Finance 101 class, especially during inflation pressure.”
Fortuitous Partners, led by Brown University graduate Brett Johnson, has poured $25 million of its own cash into the project, which is supposed to host minor-league soccer team Rhode Island FC by early 2024. Public officials and the developer remain bullish games could still start next year. But there’s currently no timeline for when the deal will close, which would allow the city to issue the bonds.
Sasse said the project’s current financing plan made more sense politically than it did economically.
“Financial and economic due diligence were not the deciding factor in the state approving the soccer stadium” he tweeted. “It was an election time driven political decision. Not the best advertisement for fiscal responsibility.”
Wednesday evening, McKee traveled back to the state and told the Boston Globe at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport he still has “a lot of faith” the project is still going to happen. But he said the “timing may be a consideration under the current financial conditions.”
“I’m very confident the project will go forward,” he said, adding that he talked with Johnson on Thursday and had “every reason to believe that project is going to be a good project for the state.”
The governor also said Johnson has not asked him for any more public money than what’s already been approved for the stadium.
“I think we’ve obligated the dollars that we’re going to obligate,” he said.
The optimism was not shared by Frias, who said the state would be wise to spend the money instead on affordable housing or retail stores.
“That would be a better use of our time and money than a minor-league soccer stadium,” Frias said.
In order for the deal to close between the developer and public officials, sides must have their debt financing in order at the same time. That has not happened yet.
“In an election year everybody wants to be at the camera, everybody wants to be at the ribbon-cutting, the groundbreaking,” Frias said. “But when bad news hits…nobody can be found.”
“The only momentum I see is a dead end,” Frias added.
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.