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Pawtucket land lease for $400M soccer development could last 100 years

Target 12

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Pawtucket leaders are nearing a tentative 50-year agreement with Fortuitous Partners LLC to lease land alongside the Seekonk River, where the developer has proposed building a $400 million project anchored by a new professional soccer stadium.

The Pawtucket City Council is slated to vote Friday on the tentative agreement negotiated between Mayor Donald Grebien and the New York-based development company. Under the terms of the deal, Fortuitous would pay the city $1 per year for 50 years – or $50 over five decades – to lease four parcels of land around Division and Taft streets.

The company would also have the option to extend the lease for two consecutive 25-year periods, meaning the agreement could remain in place for a century. The $400 million development would be the largest in Pawtucket history.

“We are excited that [Fortuitous] remains committed to this new opportunity for Pawtucket, the Blackstone Valley and Rhode Island to provide a sense of place, activity, jobs and focus throughout this development project,” Grebien said in a statement.

The draft agreement includes caveats, however.

Fortuitous still needs to reach broader economic deals with the city and state to build the soccer stadium, along with other amenities, including a hotel, an indoor sports center and a pedestrian bridge connecting the two sides of the river.

When the project was first announced in December, the state set a deadline to complete the development deal by April. As the deadline neared, however, Fortuitous received an extension on its exclusivity rights to the parcel in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

On Wednesday, R.I. Commerce Corp. and Fortuitous signed an additional extension until Sept. 15, which was granted based on “the significant and continued progress made by Foruitious and other parties on the project in meeting milestones, despite the global pandemic,” according to the agreement.

Despite the multiple extensions, the people involved in the deal remain bullish, pointing to the lease agreement as evidence the development isn’t floundering amid broader uncertainty caused by the ongoing public health emergency.

“It is clear, as the city finalizes lease agreements with Fortuitous, that everyone continues to stand behind this project,” Grebien said. “We continue to do our best to move forward even amid the coronavirus pandemic.”

While the city wouldn’t receive nearly any money from leasing the land, Pawtucket could tax buildings and tangible properly constructed on the site and expects to benefit in other ways from the influx of so much new development into a relatively quiet part of downtown.

To make the math work, the developers would tap into a Tax Increment Financing program created by legislative leaders in the wake of failed negotiations to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox from relocating to Worcester.

The tax program authorizes the state to leverage money for the project and then pay back the funds using tax revenue – such as sales and hotel taxes – generated from the new economic activity. The state currently estimates it will cover up to $90 million of the projected $400 million in costs.

The development would include the construction of a new 7,500-seat stadium at the location of the former National Grid gas plant, known as Tidewater Site, which is why Fortuitous has dubbed the mixed-use development project “Tidewater Landing.”

The stadium is supposed to become home to a United Soccer League Championship team starting in 2022, which Grebien remains optimistic will still happen.

“That hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s still moving.”

The City Council must still approve the tentative lease agreement on Friday, but it offered clear support on Tuesday when the councilors unanimously approved an amendment to a city ordinance to allow a lease agreement longer than 10 years for the Tidewater and Taft Street land.

Brett Johnson, a Fortuitous partner who’s been heading the effort in Rhode Island, attended the meeting on the Zoom video conferencing platform, but didn’t make any comments.

“The lease option agreement will memorialize the partnership to redevelop Pawtucket’s riverfront,” said Fortuitous spokesperson David Preston. “From a development perspective, site control is necessary to begin construction plans, start the regulatory process and finalize investment agreements.”

Preston agreed that the overall timeline for the project remains largely intact.

“All parties have been moving forward and meeting project milestones, despite the global pandemic,” he said. “Assuming all parties remain on schedule, and permitting approvals take an average, reasonable amount of time, the project schedule for a 2022 soccer season should still be possible.”

In addition to the the TIF program, the company still needs to finalize a lease agreement with National Grid, the state’s largest utility company, which owns an additional parcel of land along the river.

One question mark surrounding the project remains the Apex land, which would become part of the development area if the city is successful in acquiring it from its private owners.

The land has been a sticking point in past development proposals, including a PawSox stadium deal, but Grebien said the two sides are closer than ever to reaching an agreement on price. His goal is to make a deal amicably, but he has repeatedly said he’s prepared to take the land through eminent domain if necessary.

“Apex is an important part that needs to be part of it,” Grebien said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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