An investor group led by Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino and Providence, R.I., attorney James Skeffington has purchased the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league baseball franchise and hopes to relocate it near downtown Providence using land vacated by the Interstate 195 relocation for a stadium.
The group has already spent $200,000 on preliminary studies to determine the feasibility of the I-195 land, which sits near two interstate highways and some Brown University medical properties west of the Providence River and abuts downtown, the Jewelry District, College Hill and Fox Point.
Both Skeffington and Rhode Island political leaders, while short on specifics, say moving the Pawtucket Red Sox, or "PawSox," could spark economic development in the state's capital city.
The team plays in the AAA-level International League, in the highest rung of minor league baseball.
"This will have a catalytic effect on the use of I-195 land," said Skeffington, a partner in Locke Lord Edwards. Skeffington has been lead counsel in the development of the Rhode Island Convention Center, the Providence Westin Hotel and the $350 million Providence Place Mall. Newly merged Locke Lord Edwards traces its Providence roots to its Edwards & Angell days.
Any use of the former I-195 land would need approval of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, which Gina Raimondo controls as governor. If the owners want the land for free, which some media outlets have reported, the legislature would probably have to sign off as well.
State legislation passed in 2011 formed the seven-member commission.
Construction on the complex I-195/I-95 project, also called the Iway, began in 2000. All highway segments opened in late 2009 and the former highway corridor was demolished in 2011.
"The PawSox are an institution in Rhode Island, and my main goal is keeping them in the state," Raimondo said in a statement. "I look forward to discussions with the new owners regarding the details of their plans. We need a deal that makes sense for the people of Rhode Island."
The PawSox have played at McCoy Stadium since 1977 when Ben Mondor bought the team out of bankruptcy. On Monday, the investors closed on the purchase of the ballclub from widow Madeleine Mondor. Her husband died in 2010. Sale terms were not revealed.
In January 1998, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. borrowed $11.8 million to backstop a renovation at McCoy, which opened in 1942. The bonds matured in 2010.
The EDC, now called Commerce Rhode Island, also issued $42 million of revenue bonds in 2012 to transfer 40 acres uncovered by the highway overpass removal from the state Department of Transportation to the I-195 commission. The bonds are to be repaid through the sale of land in the district.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the move would be "a devastating blow" and that he would try to keep the team. Pawtucket is five miles north of Providence.
Robert Boland, a sports business professor at New York University, said minor league sports franchises have become more profitable in recent years. "Actually this is very much like a major league play, real estate value driving a move into a major city," he said of the Providence proposal.
"There was a big boom a few years ago and some clubs' values tripled and quadrupled, and even went up tenfold," he said.
The smallness of Rhode Island and its capital could be a plus, Boland added. "No one place is ever too far away in Rhode Island, and Providence is tightly packed."
Promises of economic development, however, raise red flags in some circles. Rhode Island is also home to the 38 Studios bond fiasco that left state taxpayers on the hook for $110 million, thanks to moral-obligation guarantees to backstop former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's video-game company in 2010. 38 Studios closed its doors two years later and filed for Chapter 7 liquidation.
"I think minor-league franchises are smaller economic drivers, but the communities they likely smaller, and they could be beneficial, depending upon the economies and the expenditures," said Randy Gerardes, a senior analyst at Wells Fargo Securities. "You have to be prudent, and many state and local agencies get help from outside sources. You have to look at the downside and prepare for that, and go in with a little protection."
Anthony Figliola, a vice president at Empire Government Strategies in Uniondale, N.Y., cautioned state and city officials to review the proposal diligently. "Rhode Island needs more good paying jobs, not just feel-good speech," he said.
New Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza last month projected a $3.7 million deficit for the end of the fiscal year, citing potential revenue shortfalls, higher than expected public safety call-back and overtime costs, and higher than expected medical expenditures.
Getting the state to donate land when both the state and city are struggling would be "a shrewd move on the part of the ownership," Figliola added. "If this proposal can be tied to a larger economic development strategy where the ball-park is part of a revitalized downtown, it could be a net positive."