House committee reviews PawSox ballpark, no vote taken

Updated at 1:13 p.m.

The House Finance committee is expected to review Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark legislation Tuesday./PAWTUCKET REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY
THE R.I. HOUSE Finance Committee reviewed Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark legislation Tuesday, but did not take a vote. / COURTESY PAWTUCKET REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY

PROVIDENCE – The R.I. House Finance Committee took up the Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark bill Tuesday night, following late-session revisions that have sought to shield state taxpayers from liability for the development.

The project, called the Ballpark at Slater Mill, would replace the 75-year-old McCoy Stadium with a modern facility downtown, and establish a surrounding district of redevelopment in Pawtucket that could potentially include retail, hotel, restaurant, entertainment and residential components.

The package of two bills discussed identifies the ballpark as a needed state economic-development initiative, and sets out the financing for the project. Although still estimated at $83 million, not including interest, the sharing of debt for the construction has changed dramatically compared to a version approved by the R.I. Senate last year.

Under the House bill, endorsed by Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, the state would no longer issue bonds. That responsibility would instead shift to the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency.

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The committee on Tuesday night listened to several speakers address the recent changes made to the bills, which would authorize the project.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien said at the hearing that the changes in the House bill will move financial risk away from the city and the state, and he urged an approval. He noted the PawSox are the third-largest tourist attraction in the state. And he said the redevelopment would place a new, stunning gateway to the Ocean State along the highway in Pawtucket.

“Please pass this legislation,” he said. “You will be shifting the risk and stopping the disaster of losing the Pawtucket Red Sox.”

Other speakers were less enthusiastic. One man questioned why there were no firm estimates of the revenues to be generated by the ancillary development around the project site, and why no economic impact statement on surrounding businesses had been prepared.

Another pointed out that the state will still go without taxes generated by the new development – effectively transferring the cost of the project to the state’s general fund.

Jim O’Neil said he preferred the Senate version approved last summer, because the borrowing costs, through interest, will be substantially lower because they would rely on the more superior credit rating of state-issued bonds.

“Interest costs are serious,” he said, describing the impact as in the tens of millions over the life of the bonds.

The committee did not vote on the bills in the Tuesday evening session.

The project will be an $83 million stadium, with $45 million provided by the PawSox, including $12 million in equity and $33 million in bonds. The remaining $38 million in bonds is to be issued by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, with the repayment coming from city and state revenues associated with the project and a district to be established around the site.

Contributing to the Pawtucket agency’s repayment would be the city and the state, using taxes generated by a “downtown-redevelopment project area” as yet unidentified.

The Pawtucket Red Sox, through a spokesman, have yet to comment on the revised language. A spokesman said Tuesday afternoon the organization will wait until the final action is taken before evaluating the changes.

“They have not taken a position,” said spokesman Guy Dufault in an email. “With the potential for both House and Senate amendments, they have taken the position it is best to analyze the final product should it pass.”

The organization is continuing to negotiate with the city of Worcester, in Massachusetts, which wants the team to move to a site in its Canal District. The proposal in Worcester has yet to be made public.

According to the amended House bill, released Monday, the state would authorize the R.I. Department of Revenue to enter an agreement with the Pawtucket agency that would establish provisions for the payment of the state taxes from the redevelopment district each year the bonds are active.

But this would “not constitute indebtedness of the state or any of its subdivisions or a debt for which the full faith and credit of the state or any of its subdivisions is pledged,” the bill states.

The revisions greatly expand the authority of the state to use eminent domain for the project, including for sites that are not necessarily “blighted” but which have some blighted areas.

In other provisions, the newly revised legislation would require the PawSox to cover half of the annual costs of maintenance for the new ballpark, and the city and the state would contribute at least $150,000 annually toward maintenance.

In addition, the team would be responsible for any escalation in construction costs beyond $83 million.

The state also would require that anyone working at the ballpark through construction or operation would be employed with protection of state and federal labor standards and not retained as an independent contractor. This includes concessions, the box office and custodial services.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this report contained incorrect information about the revised financing of the proposal.