WORCESTER – City councilors are poised to pass a resolution Tuesday directing the city manager to try and bring the PawSox to Worcester, though the financial viability of such a deal remains an open question.
A majority of councilors told the Telegram & Gazette this week they’d be willing to put up public money for a stadium if it didn’t hurt taxpayers.
Pawtucket Red Sox representatives met with city leaders after an exclusive negotiating window with Rhode Island expired.
Massachusetts legislators told the Telegram & Gazette this week the Legislature is unlikely to put public dollars toward a stadium for a private team. And even if a deal in Rhode Island that seeks to do that falls through, and neither city offers public money, staying in Pawtucket would likely be the shrewder move, a stadium economist said.
“All things being equal, Worcester is probably going to have to pay a higher subsidy to get them,” said Victor A. Matheson, a College of the Holy Cross economics professor who specializes in stadiums.
Mr. Matheson said that’s because despite Worcester being a larger city than Pawtucket by 110,000 people, the U.S. Census-designated Worcester Metropolitan Statistical Area is roughly 50 percent smaller than the Providence-Warwick Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Pawtucket.
“You’d probably have to offer them a sweeter deal to relocate,” said the professor, which would be difficult given the Legislature’s historical reticence to finance stadiums.
“It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?” Senate Majority Leader Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, said this week of the PawSox moving to Worcester. “(But) who’s going to pay for it?”
The senate’s second-in-command said that while she’d love to have Larry Lucchino and Co. move their operation to her hometown, the reality is that the Legislature here has an established precedent of not putting public money into sports stadiums.
“We just don’t do that,” said Mrs. Chandler, noting the state was poised to lose the New England Patriots in 1999 after refusing to finance Gillette Stadium.
While the state did kick in $72 million in infrastructure improvements for that project – and, Mrs. Chandler said, would likely be on board with infrastructure improvements in Worcester – such investment differs from the $23 million in stadium construction costs the PawSox are seeking from the Rhode Island Legislature.
Mrs. Chandler is one of more than 100 people whose names are affixed to a letter City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. sent the PawSox Aug. 8 expressing “strong and enthusiastic support” for bringing the PawSox to Worcester.
While Mr. Augustus took pains to get signatures from luminaries across the city’s educational, nonprofit, business and hospitality groups – the list is a who’s who of Worcester – he also noted the city was not hinging its hopes on the PawSox.
“Twenty years ago, a pitch for a sports team could have been seen as an effort to save the city,” he wrote in the letter. “Today, we see it as an effort to push a success story to its next chapter.”
While Mr. Augustus declined an interview on the topic Friday, past council items hint the city hasn’t been bending over backwards at the prospect of the PawSox.
In June 2016, at District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen’s urging, the council directed Mr. Augustus and other city leaders “to develop an interesting, informative and plausible proposal” to land the team.
A specific proposal was never discussed at any future council meetings; asked what became of the directive, city spokesman John Hill said Mr. Augustus "followed through with the intent of the order, which was to engage the PawSox on the possibility of coming to Worcester.
"The city manager did so, and the team is now considering Worcester as a potential partner, should they decide to leave their current home."
In June 2016, the idea that the PawSox could leave Rhode Island was less realistic than it is now. But even though the Rhode Island Legislature has yet to approve a new deal, there is one on the table that includes $45 million in PawSox funding, and some believe lawmakers there will eventually pass it.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the governor and the Legislature down there endorse the proposal,” said State Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury.
Mr. Moore concurred with Mrs. Chandler about the uncertainty of spending public dollars to finance private sports teams. But he said if it could be proven that the deal wouldn’t end up costing taxpayers money, leaders would be “foolish” not to consider it.
“I would think the (Worcester) delegation and city council would go to the governor on the importance of this,” Mr. Moore said.
Asked for comment weeks ago, Gov. Charlie Baker, through a spokesman, released a statement saying the administration “is always willing to assist partners like the city of Worcester in exploring potential economic development initiatives.”
Asked whether Lt. Governor Karyn E. Polito, who hails from Shrewsbury and is a big Red Sox fan, could speak on the topic Friday, a spokesman for the governor’s office provided the same statement from weeks prior.
Regardless of whether city officials believed a deal was feasible in 2016, it's clear they are interested now.
Friday afternoon, Mrs. Chandler called a reporter and stressed that her earlier comments about state funding shouldn’t be construed as ruling out a deal.
“I certainly don’t want to throw cold water on a lovely idea,” said Mrs. Chandler, noting that while there is a precedent against public funding for private teams, she couldn’t say for sure what might happen with the PawSox.
Minutes before Mrs. Chandler called the newspaper, Mr. Moore called to make sure his views had been properly understood, saying that he had received a call from City Hall officials about his comments.
The PawSox are seeking $38 million in public money in Rhode Island: $23 million from the state and $15 million from the city. The idea is that the public money won’t hurt taxpayers, because the long-term loans the public takes out for the project will be repaid by the additional tax revenues the new stadium generates.
“I don’t think public money is the right phrase,” Councilor-At-Large Morris A. Bergman said this week. He said he’s confident that, between the gains already being made in the Canal District, the leading candidate for a ballpark, and the buzz the PawSox would generate in the region, increased tax revenue for the deal would make up for the public seed money.
Most city councilors in interviews this week indicated they’d be open to the idea of public funding. They also made it clear they wouldn’t be interested in deals that could jeopardize city finances.
“Very cautious,” District 3 Councilor George J. Russell said when asked about the idea. Mr. Russell, Councilor-At-Large Konstantina B. Lukes and others noted that the city is looking at building two or three schools in the next several years, and has many priorities – including public safety – that rank ahead of baseball.
“We have a duty to provide appropriate oversight for public dollars,” said Councilor-At-Large Khrystian E. King, who believes the city, nevertheless, should fully explore the prospect of the deal.
“We hear some folks saying, ‘We don’t want to be used for leverage,’” said Mr. King. “But those types of things are not within our control.
“What’s within our control is to showcase the city of Worcester to the Boston Red Sox and PawSox, and to show them this is a great opportunity for not just the city, but for them.”
Mr. Bergman said he believes Worcester is a much better location for the PawSox than Pawtucket. The Canal District – where the PawSox are looking at multiple sites – is on the rise, he noted, and the infusion of the stadium, he believes, coupled with Worcester’s downtown development, would be a win for both entities.
“(A stadium bond) doesn’t get paid back through the taxpayers, it gets paid back through the additional revenue sources the PawSox create through working in Worcester,” said Mr. Bergman. He added he did not believe the PawSox “have ever cost the taxpayers a dollar in the state of Rhode Island” because of the economic benefits they’ve brought.
Mr. Matheson disagreed. Taxpayers subsidized 100 percent of the cost to build McCoy Stadium in 1942 as well as all costs of a renovation in 1986; he said the argument that taxes repaid all that investment is too nebulous.
“You can make that sort of argument for just about anything,” he said. “Let’s say a McDonald’s generates $100,000 in tax revenue a year. You could finance millions in bonds to construct one, so why doesn’t the city build every McDonald’s?
“If you just give back every dollar you generate from any tax source, you’re not making any money,” Mr. Matheson said.
Mr. Matheson acknowledged that a McDonald’s and a professional baseball team are very different, and that the prestige that would be bestowed on the city of Worcester from the PawSox would certainly be mighty.
“The question is whether you want to spend $30 million (or more) for branding,” he said. At the end of the day, from a financial standpoint, he maintains, the argument does not hold up.
Both Mr. Russell and Mrs. Lukes pointed to the DCU Center as an example. It went many years without turning a profit, they noted, even though it was supposed to also at least break even by the added tax dollars it brought the city.
“It didn’t live up to all the hype,” said Mrs. Lukes. “We’re being seduced by these uncertain promises.”
While a study commissioned by the PawSox and the city determined a new stadium in Rhode Island could generate $58 million in new taxes over 30 years – more than enough to cover the public investment – no such study has been presented in Worcester.
The professor said independent economic studies have shown that although areas surrounding ballparks often get boosts, the net gain to their entire cities is negligible.
“Are they attracting new people, or is business being diverted from Shrewsbury Street or downtown?” he asked of the hypothetical Canal Street park.
Councilor-At-Large Michael T. Gaffney, in multiple interviews on the topic, told the T&G he’s open to the idea of public financing – even substantial backing.
“I’d love to see what a plan would look like,” he said in July.
But he slammed the mayor’s resolution this week, calling it a “stupid campaign trick,” “useless propaganda tool” and “election-year gimmick.
“This (effort) has been going on behind the scenes for a long time,” Mr. Gaffney said.
Asked for more specifics on why the resolution was a ploy, Mr. Gaffney said the team “already knew we mean business” - considering that it has already met with city leaders – and noted that other city councilors, including Mr. Bergman and Mr. Rosen, have been pushing this idea for longer.
Mr. Petty took exception to the remarks.
“I can’t believe it’s being brought to this level,” he said. The resolution he proposed was meant to send a strong public signal to the PawSox of the city’s interest, he said, nothing more.
This story has been amended to remove a reference to a specific financing sum attributed to City Councilor Michael Gaffney.
Contact Brad Petrishen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPetrishenTG.