Lucchino: RI must be ‘flexible’ on stadium deal

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There are a lot of things Pawtucket Red Sox Chairman Larry Lucchino won’t say these days.

He won’t say how much he wants taxpayers to contribute in a revised Providence ballpark deal. He won’t say how much his ownership group paid for the AAA team. He won’t say how much of a profit the team makes annually.

But in an interview Wednesday, the longtime Boston Red Sox chief executive and new minor-league co-owner said he and his fellow investors remain committed to reaching a deal with state leaders to move the team to a new Providence stadium, despite the sudden death last week of PawSox President Jim Skeffington, Lucchino’s close friend.

The death of Skeffington “has a profound set of effects,” Lucchino – who has now stepped in as the team’s lead negotiator – told WPRI.com during a conversation at Skeffington’s old law office in the One Financial Plaza building downtown. “It inspires us to press on, to try to bring fulfillment to his dream.”

“We are going to try to move through to a renegotiated agreement,” he said. “I think Jim recognized, as we did, that the original agreement is unacceptable. The elected officials have made it clear to us that it’s got to be reexamined, renegotiated on several fronts, and only a renegotiated agreement has any chance of making this deal a reality.”

The original agreement Lucchino referred to was the team’s April request for $120 million in direct taxpayer subsidies, as well as free parcels of the old I-195 land and a 30-year exemption from Providence property taxes. Gov. Gina Raimondo rejected that proposal out of hand, but has tasked two of her deputies, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and I-195 Commission Chairman Joseph Azrack, to work with the team on an alternative.

“We’ll try to be flexible,” Lucchino said. “We also need the state to be flexible. This is a public/private partnership. … That means both sides need to invest something in it, and both sides need to have demonstrable benefits that flow from it.” He made his case for the public benefits in a newspaper op-ed published Wednesday.

Lucchino was unsurprisingly unwilling to reveal much about the status of his closed-door talks with the Raimondo administration, saying he doesn’t want to negotiate in public; Raimondo’s aides have been similarly tightlipped. But Lucchino said he remains “optimistic” a deal can be reached before the close of the annual General Assembly session next month, the team’s self-imposed deadline.

Lucchino said the PawSox owners are actively negotiating a different deal and are open to various alternatives, “provided that we don’t do great violence to the goal, to the vision, of what we’re doing. But yes, we’re in the throes of renegotiation right now.”

“I’m not going to talk about the day-to-day negotiations. … But ultimately we all recognize there needs to be full disclosure at the end of this process with what the renegotiation leads to, and that’s what we are engaged in,” he said.

What’s on the table in that renegotiation, however, is unknown. Lucchino was unwilling to discuss specific dollar figures or proposals that have been put forward. He did acknowledge the PawSox side has examined revenue-sharing deals such as the one put in place for the St. Paul Saints, which gives the city a share of net stadium revenue over $500,000.

“There are very few, by the way,” Lucchino said of revenue-sharing deals. “There are very few at the minor-league level. They’re more the exception than the rule. But if we are indeed looking for a new approach to the initial proposal, there were no real revenue-sharing elements to the initial proposal.” He declined to say more.

Asked how likely it is the PawSox will remain in Rhode Island, Lucchino said: “That’s very much an open question. I’m not going to speculate about that.” He said “a number” of other communities have reached out about getting the team to move, but said he’s told them “we’re talking to Rhode Island first and exclusively right now.”

Yet the stadium proposal has been met with a wave of hostility in Rhode Island from various groups and individuals opposed to providing large public subsidies to a sports team. Among the critics was Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson, who grabbed headlines earlier this month when he said during a speech in Pawtucket that the team’s request was “was out of line.”

“I completely disagree,” Lucchino said Wednesday. The team’s original proposal “was based on an agreed-upon history of a decade or more of public-private partnerships involving 16 minor-league teams and their cities,” he said. “So it was based on prevailing market comps. It was perceived as too aggressive.”

“The fact is that with virtually every ballpark in the country, especially at the minor-league level, there is substantial public participation, public investment, in that facility,” he said. “In some cases it’s just for baseball purposes – in this case it’s for a variety of purposes.” He added: “If there’s a theme, that’s the theme – it’s more than a ballpark.”

Opponents remain energized. Sam Bell, chair of a grassroots group called Providence Campaign Against the Stadium Deal, said Tuesday the group has collected more than half the 1,000 signatures necessary to put an anti-ballpark ordinance before the City Council. “If the City Council does not approve it, the charter allows us to collect more signatures to put it on the ballot,” he said.

Lucchino declined to reveal how much his ownership group paid to buy the PawSox, saying that information is protected by a confidentiality agreement with the Mondor family, which sold it to them. He declined to say how much real equity the new owners are willing to put into the deal, saying: “I’m not going to negotiate what the private component can or should be versus what the public investment can or should be.”

Lucchino said the confidentiality agreement with the Mondors also bars him from saying how much profit the PawSox organization currently generates.

“I will tell you that this is a relatively small business,” he said. “People should recognize that this is a small business. I think in the last few years there has been some small degree of profitability there, but I’m not going to quantify it. I’ll just let you know that we are talking about a small business in America, not a large business in America, with relatively small gross revenues and relatively small profit margins.”

Lucchino once again ruled out any possibility that the team will stay at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, though he said he plans to meet with Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien soon. He said he won’t commit to releasing a feasibility study commissioned by the team that showed McCoy needs nearly $66 million in renovations until he checks whether it contains proprietary information; Grebien has asked to see the study.

“McCoy has been a great ballpark and over the years it’s served its purpose,” Lucchino said. “But it is tired and most importantly, it’s noncompetitive. … In order to compete, to operate this business at a better level, we need to have a state-of-the-art ballpark that is competitive with our competitors.”

He continued: “We think that we can celebrate probably about 75 years that McCoy will have been used for baseball, and say, ‘My, what a great run that is, but aren’t we as fans, as citizens of Rhode Island, entitled to a state-of-the-art facility that makes it even a more enjoyable experience for fans and families and children and seniors, and makes it an even more useful facility for Providence and for Rhode Island, than one tucked up in Pawtucket that’s 75 years old?'”

Lucchino said he was “stunned” when he received the news that the 73-year-old Skeffington had died of a heart attack while jogging near his home in Barrington. Skeffington himself was grieving the loss of one of his own close friends, lawyer John Walsh Jr., at the time.

Lucchino recalled receiving a final text from Skeffington just before he died: “He said, ironically, sadly: ‘My heart is broken and a little piece of me died. I’m going to go for a run to try to clear my head.’ That’s the last I heard from him.”Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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