The Pawtucket PawSox, Rhode Island’s only Triple-A affiliated Minor League Baseball team, signed a letter of intent to move to the Worcester, Massachusetts, Aug. 17, according to the Providence Journal. This decision came after the state Legislature passed a financing bill for the team that was different from what had been originally negotiated and approved by the team.
The letter, signed by PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino and Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus Jr., outlines joint financing between the city and team to build an $86 million ballpark in Kelley Square. Worcester would issue $62.6 million in bonds and the team would need to provide a $6 million cash investment and $25.9 million financed through bonds. The agreement also outlines a $35 million grant for infrastructure projects related to the stadium and a clause that states the team will keep all stadium revenue, according to the Journal.
The team’s decision to relocate to Worcester came as a disappointment to Rhode Island state and local officials alike. Rep. Mary Messier, D-Pawtucket, said a deal to keep the PawSox in the state for the next three decades had been in the works for three years. “I’m just very disappointed that we couldn’t get this done,” she said.
The legislation did not start in the House, however. Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, was one of three senators who initially introduced the bill detailing the financing of a new stadium in Pawtucket. In the Senate bill, which was drafted with input from the PawSox, the team would have contributed $12 million upfront in equity, and issued a principal debt of $33 million, while the city and state would have contributed $15 million and $23 million in debt respectively. These bonds would have been floated and executed through the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency. In this bill, more than $80 million in potential borrowing would have been guaranteed by the state, the Journal reported.
The Senate passed the bill only two weeks after it was introduced, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly bill tracker. The House version, described as “a companion bill to the Senate bill,” was introduced soon after Jan. 25, said Messier, who co-sponsored the bill.
Though the Senate bill passed quickly, it took until May 29 for the House companion bill to get a hearing scheduled by the House Finance Committee, despite the fact that it had been referred the day it was introduced. The bill was then held for further study, heard by the Finance Committee again June 19 and once again held for study. It was finally recommended for passage after alterations were made June 21 and passed the next day, just days before the legislative session ended June 25. It was signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo a week later, according to the bill tracker.
The Finance Committee, in coordination with House leadership, made changes to the bill that removed the state guarantee and posed higher borrowing costs to the team, according to the Providence Journal.
Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, “was not in favor of the original bill because he thought it would hurt the taxpayer too much, so he wanted it changed,” Messier said.
The version that was ultimately passed “took away the risk for the taxpayers, which was one of the key elements that both my constituents and a number of my colleagues’ constituents were very concerned with,” said House Majority Whip John Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton. Edwards, who sits on the Finance Committee, said he met with House leadership “at least three times” to talk about changes for the House bill.
But the subject of taxpayer risk was not met with unanimus support. The changes made to the final House bill would make it impossible for the team to seek financial assistance from the City of Pawtucket or the state if they were not financially successful, Nesselbush said. “If for any reason the stadium was not making enough money, the investors couldn’t look to the State of Rhode Island or the City of Pawtucket for any payment,” Nesselbush said.
“This was calculated risk. It was designed for the ballpark to pay for itself, and for the economic development spurred by the ballpark to enable the city and the state to make their debt payment … in a revenue-neutral way that wouldn’t cost the taxpayers any money,” Nesselbush said. “I think that the PawSox were a tried and true successful business,” she added.
Blame was quick to follow the announcement of the PawSox move. Nesselbush called out Mattiello in a public Facebook post for not prioritizing the passage of the House bill. Allan Fung, Republican gubernatorial candidate, told the Providence Journal that “the dysfunctional relationship between the Governor, Speaker and Senate President prevented any deal from ever happening, and now families and local businesses are paying the price.” Fung opposed the initial deal made with the Senate, according to the Journal. Fung’s campaign did not respond to muliple requests for comment from The Herald.
“The changes were not agreed upon by the PawSox. That’s why they left. … At no time were the Governor, the Speaker, the Senate President, the PawSox, the Mayor of Pawtucket or the Pawtucket reps all in a room together. Never,” Messier said.
PawSox President Charles Steinberg, along with Lucchino, wanted the team to stay in state. Had the House passed the Senate’s version of the bill, the team would have stayed in Pawtucket, according to the Journal. Despite the desire to stay in state, the letter of intent signed with Worcester provided a significantly more attractive financial deal to the team. The team will provide $6 million in upfront equity, which is half of what the House bill would have required, and over $7 million less in issued debt. The Worcester Division of Planning and Regulatory Services declined to provide further comment, and the PawSox did not provide comment by press time.
In an Aug. 22 press conference recorded by NBC 10 News, Raimondo and Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien avoided placing blame and instead focused on the future of Pawtucket’s downtown district. “We’re committed … to continuously move forward,” Grebien said.
Raimondo reiterated her support for Pawtucket and congratulated Grebien on his efforts to keep the team in state. “You put your all into it,” she said.
“To compete with Worcester’s offer would have jeopardized our city’s future, and I would not have done that, just as the state was not willing to do that,” Grebien added.