Raimondo balks at pitch for new PawSox stadium

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Lucchino 195 TN 4-27-2015 crop_167367

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The new PawSox owners’ first stadium proposal is dead. Will a revised one have more success?

That was the question of the hour late Monday after Gov. Gina Raimondo and her top aides poured cold water on a request from new Pawtucket Red Sox President Jim Skeffington for $120 million in taxpayer subsidies and free downtown land to build the AAA team a new stadium.

“From what I understand of the owners’ initial proposal, it appears that Rhode Island taxpayers would pay most, if not all of the cost of building the new stadium, yet the owners would stand to receive all of the profits,” Raimondo said in a statement Monday evening. “That isn’t fair for Rhode Islanders.”

Skeffington is moving quickly to revise the terms of the deal, telling WPRI.com the team now wants to purchase – rather than lease for $1 a year – the former I-195 land on the riverfront that it wants for the stadium. He also said the team is ready to negotiate with the Raimondo administration and General Assembly leaders, though he declined to say if less than $120 million would suffice.

“I’m not going to discuss it,” Skeffington said. “We’ll be happy to have dialogue with the city and the state.”

It’s clear Rhode Island leaders are still intrigued by the idea of building a taxpayer-subsidized stadium downtown. Stefan Pryor, Raimondo’s secretary of commerce, told reporters the governor and her aides would be sitting down with Skeffington and his team to explore alternative ways of financing a ballpark that might be more politically palatable.

“The important question to ask is whether there might be an alternative financial arrangement that might be more fair and might enable taxpayers to feel less of the burden,” Pryor said. He added: “It’s too soon to suggest a set of conditions under which we would be favorable to this proposal.”

“We’re confident that we will have a thorough dialogue with the team ownership,” he said.

Pressed on whether the state would consider borrowing the money on the team’s behalf, Pryror said: “I’m not saying that. I’m simply saying that we need to understand better precisely why the ownership chose this mechanism in order to understand whether alternatives might be explored and which ones might be possible.”

“I think our goal is to come up – if there is a deal worth doing here – it is to come up with one that has the lowest cost of capital for the state, and as I’ve said before, an equitable sharing between the [team], the state and the city,” I-195 Redevelopment District Commission Chairman Joseph Azrack added.

However, Skeffington said his timeline hasn’t changed – he wants a deal before the General Assembly adjourns for the year in June. “Two or three months is an adequate time to see if our idea has sufficient merit to attract the support of governmental leaders,” he said. Skeffington has said repeatedly that other communities are interested in poaching the team.

Skeffington made his comments after he and Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino, another new PawSox co-owner, testified at a meeting of the I-195 Commission. It marked the new ownership group’s first appearance before a public body since they purchased the team earlier this year.

Lucchino made an impassioned case to the commissioners on behalf of the stadium, saying it would be “a point of civic pride” and an economic driver. “The fact is that this ballpark can be exceptional,” he said, describing the situation as a “gigantic opportunity” for Rhode Island.

At the meeting, the team released a study by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin suggesting the ballgame attendees could make use of nearly 13,000 off-street and 1,400 on-street parking spaces located within a 10-minute walk of the stadium. The study argued it would have minimal impact on traffic downtown during game nights.

“We’re not going to make that any worse than it is today,” VHB’s David Taglianetti told the commission.

“I have never seen a better site for an urban minor-league ballpark,” added Richard Neuman of Brailsford and Dunlavey, another consulting firm hired by the team.

But Lucchino and Skeffington were greeted with considerable skepticism from members of the I-195 Commission, many of whom are newly appointed since Raimondo took office. The panel has hired outside consultants to help vet the stadium proposal. (The commission’s usual legal counsel, Locke Lord, is recusing itself from the stadium matter because Skeffington works there.)

For example, the new owners offered a revised estimate Monday of how much tax revenue the stadium would generate for the state – $2.4 million – and suggested that should count in their favor when looking at the taxpayer money they want. But they were unable to answer when Beppie Huidekoper, a commissioner who recently retired as Brown University’s top finance executive, asked how much tax revenue McCoy Stadium currently generates.

“I think the deal that’s currently on the table needs a lot of work,” Huidekoper told WPRI.com after the meeting.

Similarly, Nabsys CEO and veteran commission member Barrett Bready scoffed at Skeffington’s repeated suggestion that the stadium would help attract biotech companies, helping offset taxpayers’ roughly $4 million annual subsidy to the ballpark. “There are much more direct ways of attracting life sciences and biotech companies” with the same money, Bready said.

“We have to look at the opportunity cost,” said commissioner Edwin Santos, chairman of the Prospect CharterCARE hospital group. “If we don’t use this land as a baseball stadium, what else could we use it for and what would be the benefits of that?”

Lucchino and Skeffington both ruled out remaining at McCoy Stadium, which they noted has been open since the 1940s. Skeffington said the team commissioned a study that suggested it would cost more than $65 million to rehabilitate McCoy, though that report has not been released publicly.

“It has been a terrific and charming ballpark – I don’t deny that – but this is a different time,” Lucchino said.

A small but vocal group of protestors were on hand for the crowded I-195 Commission meeting, as well, and they expressed strong opposition to the entire stadium proposal. Their affiliations ranged across the political spectrum, taking in Republicans, libertarians, Green Party members and taxpayer watchdogs.

Also on hand for part of the meeting was Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, one of the state’s most powerful legislative leaders, who listened quietly to the proceedings. A number of organized labor officials were there, as well; construction union leaders have expressed strong support for the stadium.

It’s unclear, though, how many state lawmakers are open to providing tens of millions to underwrite a stadium. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, wrote in a constituent email over the weekend that the initial proposal was “outrageous” and that only “minimal” taxpayer support should be provided for a ballpark.

“Behind the scenes, the only (admittedly limited but bipartisan) reaction I have heard from colleagues has been uniformly negative,” he wrote.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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