(Updated at 3:23 p.m.)
LINCOLN – During an “eggs and issues” breakfast hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello on Wednesday said the legislature is working on a new “framework” which would remove any risk for the taxpayer and transition the Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark proposal to a self-funded model.
“The PawSox are part of the fabric of the state,” he said, and while some are willing to let the team relocate to Massachusetts, he believes the public would like to see them remain in Rhode Island.
Calling him a “friend to business,” John C. Gregory, Chamber president and CEO, said the breakfast marked the fifth appearance for Mattiello with the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce since the speaker was first elected to the House in 2006.
While he spent the first 10 minutes thanking members of his “team”; including multiple local state representatives, local town administrators and small- business owners; Mattiello concluded his remarks on the status of the PawSox project.
The Senate has supported a proposal that would involve $23 million in state-backed bonds, with another $15 million issued by Pawtucket and $33 million by the team. The city will own the stadium.
“It’s difficult to create a public-private partnership where the public is the partner that is saying ‘no’,” Mattiello said.
He cited an October 2017 Go Local Providence poll which found 67 percent of those queried were opposed to a specific financing proposal for the project.
The PawSox, however, have said the poll was misleading, claiming it did not accurately explain needed borrowing for the project and implied the team will own the stadium.
Mattiello said he thinks the polling will shift to 60 percent in favor of the proposal if it is amended to remove “risk” and is self-funded.
Larry Berman, a spokesman for the speaker, said the new framework is the result of ongoing conversations with Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien and PawSox team administrators.
While the speaker hopes to bring the framework to the legislature prior to the end of the current session, said Berman, “nothing is guaranteed.”
Looking down the road, if the legislature can achieve such a deal, Mattiello believes, “in five to 10 years everyone will say it was a great thing.
“Big capital projects,” he added, “tend to start off more controversial” before dying down.
In the past, “Rhode Island has taken some risks that were not as appropriate as they should be,” said Mattiello. For many, the PawSox deal is seen to be similar to the state’s infamous loan guarantee to 38 Studios, which went bankrupt.
Mattiello characterized the recent back-and-forth between the legislators and the public as a “misalignment between elected officials and the citizens of the state.”
His statement comes less than two months after Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, in a meeting with journalists, called for more action from the House regarding “at least consider[ing]” the deal crafted by the Senate.
Mattiello said he knows “the citizens of the state often get frustrated and don’t believe elected officials listen” to their concerns, but added: “People like me had better make sure we listen to the public and I’m doing my best.”
A PawSox spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The event was held at the Kirkbrae Country Club and after roughly 25 minutes of comments and less than five questions, the breakfast was concluded when Chamber representatives presented the speaker with a birthday card.
Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.