Massachusetts cheers, Rhode Island bickers over PawSox move to Worcester

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Cheers in Massachusetts and bickering in Rhode Island followed the announcement that minor-league baseball's Pawtucket Red Sox intend to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, for the 2021 season.

In announcing the relocation 40 miles northwest on Friday, the PawSox – soon to become the WooSox – rejected a bonding framework Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed in June in an effort to keep the ballclub in the place it's called home since 1973. The final legislation the state House of Representatives passed eliminated a state guarantee on bonds that the state Senate had approved.

According to PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino, the deal with Worcester, New England’s second-largest city, includes a 10,000-seat ballpark in the Canal District, south of downtown, for the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

The projected cost of Polar Park – local beverage company Polar acquired the naming rights -- is roughly $90 million, and team officials expect to open it for the 2021 season. Until then, the PawSox will play as lame ducks at Pawtucket’s 76-year-old McCoy Stadium, baseball’s oldest Class Triple-A facility.

Worcester intends to borrow $100 million for the stadium at the abandoned Wyman-Gordon factory, and expects to pay $70 million through a tax increment financing plan. The ballclub, a Boston Red Sox affiliate, would pay only $6 million upfront and finance about $30 million over six years.

“This project will pay for itself,” City Manager Edward Augustus told reporters at City Hall. “No existing city tax revenues will have to be diverted to support this project. That was a fundamental principle to this project. The development costs and revenue streams identified are interconnected and codependent.”

Worcester’s City Council is scheduled to discuss the plan Tuesday night. The International League in which the ballclub plays must also approve the relocation.

Worcester, with general obligation ratings of AA from Fitch Ratings and AA-minus and Aa3 from S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service, respectively, has said it will guarantee the construction debt.

Since Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker took office in 2015, his administration has sought to boost economic development in Worcester, 30 miles west of Boston. Members of his inner circle, notably Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito from nearly Shrewsbury, have ties to the region.

“We’ve been strongly committed to investing in the Canal District,” Polito said.

Massachusetts said it would contribute $35 million of infrastructure improvements and tax credits as part of a redevelopment of the immediate area. It will include new housing, a hotel, a parking garage and a fixup to blighted Kelley Square nearby, where traffic at a multi-pronged intersection is nightmarish.

“From what we can tell, it’s many, many millions of dollars more in taxpayer subsidies – much, much more than what Rhode Island could afford,” Raimondo said in Providence.

Under Rhode Island’s framework, the team would have had to pay $45 million, with upfront equity at $12 million or double the Massachusetts amount. Pawtucket would have borrowed about $70 million. Rhode Island would have kicked in $23 million, or $12 million less than what Massachusetts offered.

Unanswered questions include economic development alternatives for Pawtucket, six miles north of capital Providence, including the pursuit of another ballclub.

Credit implications for both sets of cities and states are also variables. Moody’s took a wait-and-see stance on Pawtucket in June as lawmakers weighed the stadium bonding package.

Election-year bickering immediately erupted in Rhode Island.

Raimondo, a Democrat seeking a second term, said the Senate bill, which she and Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien negotiated with team owners, would have provided enough impetus to keep the PawSox.

“It didn't have to be this way,” she told reporters. “Had the legislature acted swiftly to enact that I think the outcome today would have been differently.”

Grebien said the team kept him in the dark until the last minute. “Sadly, we had to learn through media reports.”

While Pawtucket has received multiple rating upgrades since Grebien took office in 2011, the city faces its shares of major challenges. Care New England closed Memorial Hospital on Jan. 1 and toymaker Hasbro is considering a move out of town.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican candidate for governor and tabbed the front-runner to challenge Raimondo in November, blamed “a dysfunctional relationship” among Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.

Mattiello blamed team owners. Ruggerio, in turn, lambasted Mattiello for changing the Senate-approved bond bill.

Republican national committeeman Steve Frias, who is challenging Mattiello in the House again after losing to the speaker by only 85 votes two years ago, said the PawSox owners overpaid for the team in 2015. “Ever since they have been demanding a new taxpayer-funded stadium.”

Three years ago, right after the Lucchino group purchased the ballclub from the widow of longtime owner Ben Mondor, it proposed a taxpayer-funded stadium on prime land in Providence on land vacated by the rerouting of Interstate 195. Backlash ensued in a state still reeling from the 38 Studios bond financing fiasco, and the group backed off from Providence.

In addition, PawSox president and local businessman James Skeffington died in May 2015, leaving the ownership group without a vital political connection.

A sour taste from 38 Studios effectively divided Rhode Island throughout the stadium debate. Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s video-game company by that name secured a $75 million loan from Rhode Island in 2010 to move to downtown Providence from Maynard, Massachusetts.

The company folded two years later, leaving Rhode Island stranded with moral obligation bond debt on which it has been making yearly payments.

“OK if we blame Curt Schilling for Pawtucket Red Sox move to Worcester?" longtime Boston Globe baseball columnist Dan Shaughnessy asked Friday on Twitter.

Lucchino, a former president of the parent Boston Red Sox, cited fatigue over the Rhode Island situation.

“You want to go where you’re wanted, not where there’s controversy and dissension and all of that,” said Lucchino. “'I will admit to thinking our situation was certainly clouded by the hangover of 38 Studios.”

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Infrastructure Budgets Charlie Baker Gina Raimondo City of Pawtucket, RI City of Worcester, MA Massachusetts Rhode Island