PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The leaders of Rhode Island’s new minor league soccer team are doubling down on the promise that games will begin next year, but they’re signaling they may happen somewhere other than the troubled Tidewater Landing project in Pawtucket.
In a letter sent to potential season ticket holders on Sunday, Rhode Island FC president Brett Luy acknowledged the questions swirling around the owner’s 10,000-seat stadium under construction along the Seekonk River. But he reassured fans the USL soccer team would start playing games next year, even if the first ball drops somewhere other than Tidewater.
“Let me be clear and unequivocal: Rhode Island FC is playing soccer in Rhode Island in 2024,” Luy wrote in the letter that was also posted to Twitter. “Our leadership team is evaluating all venue options while the construction of the stadium at Tidewater Landing progresses.”
The letter follows a week of tough headlines for the stadium project, which is being led by developer Fortuitous Partners. Target 12 first reported Wednesday public officials have hit the pause button on issuing $27 million in bonds to help pay for the stadium, which has been clouded by political controversy.
Pawtucket and state officials had planned to issue the bonds by February. There’s now no timeline for when it will happen.
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Fortuitous developer Brett Johnson and Gov. Dan McKee gave reassurances the project would move forward, and state and city officials have pointed to the nearly $25 million the developer has already put down in private funds that has paid for construction so far.
But it remains unclear how long the private money will last and the developer has said since the project was first unveiled in 2019 that the stadium can’t be built without the help of public funds. The team and public officials point to rising inflation and interest rates as the reason why the public-private deal hasn’t been finalized yet. Both sides must be prepared to close on debt financing at the same time for the bonds to be issued.
“Interest rates climb, and that type of thing does impact projects like this, but I have full confidence,” McKee told reporters Friday, deflecting a question about whether the government would be ready to close today if the developer was also ready. (The bonds will be floated by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Authority.)
“I’ve got full confidence that this project is going to move forward,” he added.
The inflationary environment isn’t a new problem for the development. Last spring, an initial financing plan for the stadium fell through amid rising costs, resulting in the developer coming back to the state asking for more money.
McKee cast the tie-breaking vote in a controversial compromise that shifted millions of dollars from a future phase of the project focused on housing to help cover the shortfall. The deal raised the ire of stadium critics, who argue the project is bad for taxpayers and that rising inflation and interest rates aren’t going away any time soon. The Federal Reserve increased short-term interest rates again last week.
“Is anybody surprised the Soccer Stadium is a financial mess?” former R.I. Department of Administration director Gary 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.”
Despite the money problems, Luy argued the team is “moving forward faster than ever,” citing the hiring of management and front-office staff that will help run Rhode Island FC. He said they will announce a venue for next year once they “finalize those plans in the near future.”
Rhode Island does not have any other professional soccer stadium, and the team is promising the games will begin in-state, limiting the options for where else they might play.
“Once the venue for next year is finalized, we will announce plans and policies for how you can convert your deposit to season tickets for our historic inaugural season,” Luy wrote.