PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Even as developer Brett Johnson celebrates the recent groundbreaking for his $124 million soccer stadium in Pawtucket, his existing minor-league team in Arizona may be on the way out of its newly constructed stadium there.
Johnson — who is spearheading the massive Pawtucket development project, known as Tidewater Landing — is part-owner of Phoenix Rising FC, a USL Championship league soccer team that started playing last year in a new 10,000-seat stadium at Wild Horse Pass, located on tribal land outside Phoenix.
Johnson, a partner of the development company Fortuitous Partners, often touts the Arizona stadium as evidence that he has a model which will work in Rhode Island, too. Last month, he successfully convinced state leaders to approve at least $60 million in public support to help build the Pawtucket stadium, and referenced the Arizona team in making his case.
Asked last month what gives him confidence that a team in Pawtucket will be able to fill enough seats to make the Tidewater project’s financing work, Johnson said, “My success at Phoenix Rising — when we build it, they will come.”
At last Friday’s groundbreaking for Tidewater, however, Johnson distanced himself from the Arizona team when asked why Phoenix Rising might need to exit the newly created modular stadium, saying he’s no longer intimately there.
“I’m not a part of Phoenix Rising day-to-day any longer,” he told 12 News.
Johnson was joined at the event by Gov. Dan McKee and other state leaders, along with scores of union workers wearing construction helmets, all of whom celebrated the development project as a much-needed way to spur revitalization and create new jobs in the area.
Johnson told 12 News he left the board of Phoenix Rising “to focus my full-time attention on making this project a reality, and we’ve made it a reality.” The Arizona team separately confirmed Johnson stepped down as co-chairman last November.
Details about the precarious outlook for Phoenix Rising and the team’s potential departure from its new stadium are hard to come by.
In response to questions from 12 News, team spokesperson Jason Minnick sent a link to a 98.7 Arizona Sports radio story from June, which suggested the team was having issues because the new property managers had “gone back on agreements.”
“This is the most recent update,” Minnick wrote, referencing the radio station’s article. “If anything changes, the club will provide an update at that time.”
In June, Phoenix Rising general manager Bobby Dulle described the relationship between the team and the property managers as “a challenge.”
“Some of the things that we had hoped for that were in place when we relocated here — there’s been a management change, a lot of new people, so that just takes some time to sit down and kind of work through their reasons and the operational measures that we had hoped would be in place,” he told reporters. “So we’re exercising some patience on that front.”
Asked for more information about what specific agreements were in dispute, Minnick again copied and pasted excerpts from the radio station’s online story, none of which answered the question.
Asked specifically if the team was having trouble paying its bills, Minnick responded, “not true,” and again cited quotes from the radio station’s article.
The Wild Horse Pass stadium, which was completed last year, is located within the Gila River Indian Community. An email seeking comment from the tribal government wasn’t immediately returned.
Last month, 98.7 Arizona Sports reported the newly appointed club governor, Bill Kraus, said he expected Phoenix Rising would continue playing at the stadium in 2023 and hoped to be there longer. But Kraus also said the team was actively “considering other options.”
“We need to keep our options open in case it ever becomes necessary for us to move again,” he said.
While Johnson declined to discuss specifics about what’s going on in Arizona, he dismissed the possibility of relocating Phoenix Rising to the Pawtucket stadium, which still doesn’t have a team. And state officials emphasized they are working to put in place some safeguards that would require the developer to repay money in the event the new team doesn’t play in Pawtucket for 30 years.
“One of the multiple taxpayer protections that will be negotiated with the developer is a 30-year commitment to field a USL Championship Division soccer team with repayment provisions if they depart during this commitment period,” R.I. Commerce Corp. spokesperson Adam Isaacs-Falbel said Monday.
For stadium opponents such as Commerce board member Mike McNally, who voted against the $60 million public financing plan, the news about Phoenix Rising seeking a new home so quickly after relocating to its newly constructed stadium is a red flag.
“I have no direct knowledge of what is going on in Phoenix,” he said this week. “But I can say that a significant qualification that was touted by Fortuitous was their successful soccer club in Phoenix. As a matter of fact their most compelling qualification was their successful soccer club experience as their experience as a developer was basically non-existent.”
A political and financial football
Johnson, the son of a former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, graduated from Brown University in 1992. He first came to public prominence locally in late 2019, when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state leaders joined him at a news conference to unveil Tidewater Landing. The proposed soccer stadium was the centerpiece of what was then billed as a $400 million redevelopment plan.
The announcement came just a few months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused a major slowdown in the project’s progress. Then earlier this year, Fortuitous came to state leaders seeking more money, saying inflation and supply-chain issues had sent the cost of the stadium soaring.
McKee cast the tie-breaking vote last month when the Commerce board narrowly approved a revised $60 million public financing deal for the stadium, which contains the 30-year team commitment provision.
Including the private investment, the stadium alone is projected to cost $124 million to build — the most ever for a USL soccer stadium.
The new financing deal — which required shifting money away from a future phase of the project that is supposed to develop new housing units in Pawtucket — has now turned the soccer stadium into a political football.
During a gubernatorial debate on WPRO radio Monday, McKee’s Democratic rivals slammed him over the structure of the financing and a lack of transparency surrounding the deal.
“Governor McKee, did you read the report before you cast the deciding vote for Tidewater that concludes that the deal is going to lose tens of millions of dollars for the state?” asked one of McKee’s challengers, Matt Brown.
McKee didn’t answer Brown directly, but said, “The deal, the project, was approved before I got in [as] governor. It’s a good project. We’re going to keep that going. And the project is going to get completed.”
Since the deal was approved, Commerce officials have struggled to answer questions and been slow to respond to requests for information. That includes refusing to release revenue projections from Fortuitous, which were blacked out in a report put together by the state’s consultant, CSL.
Commerce attorney Scott Sawyer argued the administration could have withheld the entire CSL report by using exemptions allowed under the state’s Access to Public Records Act. But he said the quasi-public agency decided to release parts of the report anyway with “limited redactions.”
Sawyer sent the documents to reporters at about 9 p.m. Friday — several hours after the groundbreaking ceremony when developers and state leaders were made available for questions. (12 News is filing a complaint with R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office under the records law, appealing Commerce’s decision to withhold financial information.)
A Target 12 review of the economic and financial estimates which state officials have made available so far shows the 10,000-seat stadium is projected to generate $565,000 of new state revenue in 2024, when Fortuitous now expects the stadium to have its first year of operations.
A schedule of projected debt payments released by Commerce last Friday shows the newly generated tax revenue would cover only about 19% of the annual payment due in fiscal year 2024-25 on the debt that taxpayers are issuing to fund the stadium.
On Friday, McKee dismissed a question about the new revenue failing to cover payments on the bond, promising he would continue to champion the project, and arguing it will eventually pay for itself when future phases of the project come together. He also suggested criticism was being generated by opponents who want to tank the project.
“I think we’re at that point, where some of the pushback that’s coming, that you’re hearing, is centered around trying to submarine a project that we actually need to get done,” he said Friday.
Brown and his running mate as lieutenant governor, state Sen. Cynthia Mendes, have dubbed the project “Tidewatergate” and on Monday criticized both McKee and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, for withholding information about it.
“The people of Rhode Island deserve to know how bad this deal really is,” Mendes said in a statement. “The McKee-Matos administration should release all documents related to the deal without redactions.”
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.