Take me out to the ballgame...as long as you're paying for it
After an involved and careful negotiating process between the City of Pawtucket and the Pawtucket Red Sox Triple-A Baseball Team, a new stadium proposal has been presented. Unlike the original proposal for a Providence stadium in 2015, this version is more reasonable and apparently less burdensome for the taxpayer.
After the faith destroying effects of the 38 Studios debacle, the Ocean State taxpayer is more than dubious about any public/private sector project. Although prudence and caution are always wise when it comes to the government spending our hard earned money on some enterprise that may serve special interests above public interests. We cannot move forward as a society without building, renovating, and fixing both the literal and figurative foundations of our state and our economy. This is our dichotomy.
The understandable knee jerk reaction from any Rhode Islander is to dismiss any future public/private proposal as verboten. However, upon examination of this latest idea, one can conclude that this plan holds some merit. Considering the vehement backlash from the 2015 Providence proposal, the principles involved along with Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien have now offered a much more realistic schematic that could indeed prove beneficial to the city and the state long term. The two proposals are dramatically different in the distribution of responsibility and liability, yet we the taxpayers still shoulder some of the burden.
Reactions from our elected officials have been mixed. Also, with only about a month left in the legislative session, and with an approximate budget shortfall of $100 million, one is doubtful that this new stadium plan can be rigorously scrutinized sufficiently this year. However, time is not necessarily of the essence as previously mentioned suitors such as Worchester, Mass and Hartford, Connecticut have lost interest. So, if this project eventually comes to fruition, this will only transpire by a long detailed examination of every facet and possible effect of the deal at hand.
38 Studios has given rise to the due diligence we citizens had deserved from our representatives in the first place.
It was a scant two years ago that the late James Skeffington Sr. brought forward a proposal to build a new state of the art Triple A baseball stadium in downtown Providence. The deal presented was strictly burdensome to the taxpayer and held little liability and exposure to the owners of the Pawsox. Citizens exploded in a rage of umbrage that once again a wealthy special interest would only yield profit and not bear responsibility in the case of failure. State representatives were solicited in droves from constituents complaining about the possibility of being hoodwinked again. Consequently, the malingering specter of 38 Studios compelled Rhode Islanders to roadblock any attempt at another grand project backed by the taxpayer.
Nevertheless, one must examine the drastic differences between the Providence proposal and the Pawtucket Proposal. In 2015, 80% of the total cost of the funding for the project was supplied by the state. In the new proposal, only 28% of the project cost is supplied by the state. Most importantly, in the old deal, the State issued the bonds. While in the new deal, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency issues the bonds. Thus, the Rhode Island taxpayer does not bear the brunt of direct responsibility for repayment.
According to Ballpark Digest Magazine, the Pawsox organization will supply 45 Million for the build, with a 12 Million Dollar initial outlay and 33 Million from facility revenue. So, the team’s burden for construction is 54 percent of the cost while Rhode Island comes up with 23 Million and Pawtucket comes up with 15 Million.
Opinions vary regarding the viability of this proposal dependent on whose voicing them. Pawsox Vice-Chairman Mike Tamburro was impressed. “Never in my wildest dreams did I envision a day when we could make such a commitment in time and such a commitment in dollars.”
Of course, Mr.Tamburro is correct. Comparatively to the original proposal, this version is much fairer to the taxpayer. Yet, there are many naysayers who are promising not one dime and are not in favor of any private/public partnership ever again. Previously betrayed taxpayers, still seething from the burns inflicted upon them by Curt Shilling cite the wealth of the principles involved. Majority owners Larry Lucchino, Jim Skeffington Junior, Bernie Cammarata, and J. Terence Murray are all extraordinarily wealthy individuals who could obviously fully finance this deal out of their pocket change. If the prospect of the stadium’s success is so great, what do you need us for? Build it yourself.
Lucchino cites the overall public benefit to the proposed project as more than just serving his baseball team. “It will be more than a ballpark. It will be a City Park, open all year round.” That is a nice rationalization, but in reality the main objective is to create a new venue for your baseball team. Who are you fooling Larry?
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien was effusively positive about hashing out the proposal for his city. “We have all reached agreement on a proposal to present” and he stated his further confidence, “an unprecedented deal.” Better than before, sure but “unprecedented” hardly. If the deal merely involved some city tax breaks and no state money, that would be unprecedented! Grebien continued, “After collaborative discussion and extensive negotiations, it is time to widen the circle and bring this proposal to the governor and state legislature for their consideration and approval.”
So, what did the Governor of the State of Rhode Island Gina M. Raimondo think about this proposal given we have an approximate $100 million budget shortfall looming and we are still paying off 38 Studios? “The ballpark proposal that the City of Pawtucket and the team has put forward appears to pay for itself and I credit Mayor Grebien and the Pawsox for listening to Rhode Islanders and coming up with a radically different proposal than two years ago. I believe it merits vetting as part of the legislative process.” That was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the deal, as Gina continues to tiptoe across the public relations tightrope with every response.
However, she is correct that on the face of it, this is a much better deal. Although, the ulterior inquiry is more accurately should we use state taxpayer’s funds at all? And will the present deal actually be revenue neutral due to future volume and profitability?
The proposed “Ballpark at Slater Mill” which might be more aptly called the ballpark where Mom used to buy us pants for school or the old DMV ballpark, might be a wonderful addition to Pawtucket and the state. But who should have to pay for the privilege of building it? We Rhode Islanders will patronize it and supply the revenue for its success. That should be enough of a contribution to the project. We are not in a rush here. Hopefully, the General Assembly learned the lesson about acting in haste and repenting in leisure. With one month left on the legislative calendar and a rather large budget shortfall, the proposal should be tabled for further study later in next year’s session. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello seems lukewarm on the idea thus far anyway and that is a good thing.
The ghost of 38 Studios still haunts the chamber up there on Smith Hill. With any luck those poltergeists will hang around and force a slow deliberative process when considering all public/private proposals for many sessions to come!