Pawtucket tries to keep hope alive

Sunset for the Pawsox? According to information from the PawSox, attendance last year was 528,355, ranking it 10th among the 30 AAA teams. / COURTESY PAWTUCKET RED SOX/KELLY O'CONNOR
SUNSET FOR THE PAWSOX? Will talks with Worcester, Mass., officials about attracting the Boston Red Sox's AAA affiliate force the hand of state and local officials and make them work harder to keep the team in Rhode Island? / COURTESY PAWTUCKET RED SOX/KELLY O'CONNOR

Before news broke that the new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox wanted to move the team from its longtime home at McCoy Stadium to the Providence riverfront, Pawtucket officials had been thinking big.

Could the area around the stadium be the next Patriot Place, the open-air mall next to Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots play in Foxborough, Mass.? Could it be a destination filled with restaurants and shops like Yawkey Way next to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox?

A feasibility study for the stadium was even supposed to kick off early this year. The state and team were each to put $50,000 toward the study for future development, but it never happened, according to Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien.

Instead, the plan was derailed by a news report late last year about the team possibly being sold to part of the Boston Red Sox ownership group. That left Pawtucket officials scrambling with little success to find out who the new owners were.

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There was no reason to think then that the team – a presence in the city since 1970 and one of its best-known attractions – could leave.

But in January, as rumors circulated about the new owners possibly moving the team to either Providence or East Providence, officials took action. They asked the nonprofit Pawtucket Foundation to update a 2012 report that looked at redevelopment in the riverfront area of Pawtucket and Central Falls, changing the focus to McCoy instead.

Then news broke that the team had a new ownership group headed by Providence lawyer James J. Skeffington and Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. Grebien was asked to meet with Skeffington on Feb. 22 by Bob Goldberg, the new owners’ attorney, who would also be there.

Grebien anticipated an introductory meeting. He and Antonio J. Pires, the city’s director of administration, were excited to meet the new ownership team to make their pitch for keeping the team in the city. They carried a draft from The Pawtucket Foundation illustrating redevelopment plans for the 78-acre area around and including McCoy.

But instead of talking about McCoy’s future, Grebien received news he described as “heartbreaking” and “gut-wrenching.” The new owners planned to move the team to a ballpark to be built along the Providence riverfront on former Interstate 195 land.

Pawtucket, he was told, had an extremely slim chance of keeping the team.

“The news was as much a surprise as it was a disappointment,” Grebien told Providence Business News.

“Disappointment” was a word used repeatedly by Pawtucket officials in the days and weeks following the announcement of plans to move the team to Providence, which could happen within two years, according to Skeffington.

“Frustration” was another – that Pawtucket officials were never given a chance to make their case for keeping the team.

“We feel like we never really got the opportunity to have a conversation about that bigger vision,” Pawtucket Foundation Executive Director Aaron Hertzberg said.

MCCOY OUTDATED?

Skeffington, a partner with Providence’s Locke Lord LLP, has described McCoy as dated and said a new stadium on 7.5 acres of former I-195 land could be a “game-changer” for the city and state, drawing visitors to see not only the Triple-A Red Sox affiliate he wants to call the “Rhode Island Red Sox,” but to other events the state-of-the-art stadium would host – concerts, collegiate sports games and more.

New stadiums, Skeffington said, have more amenities than McCoy, which he doesn’t see as a suitable backup plan.

Grebien disputes that the stadium is outdated. So does Pires. Grebien said renovations have kept McCoy in good condition and “provide a first-class ballpark experience at an affordable price.

“We all feel that the ballpark blends modern upgrades with a sense of history … very similar to the experience of watching a game at Fenway Park,” Grebien said. “There is certainly something to be said for history.”

The last time the 1942-built McCoy, which is the oldest AAA stadium in the country, was renovated was in 1999, through approximately $11.8 million in state bonds – plus $4 million in interest – from the then-R.I. Economic Development Corporation that saw the number of seats go from 7,000 to 10,000 to meet AAA baseball standards. The bonds were paid off five years ago.

Pires, a lifelong Pawtucket resident who was a state representative when the bond for McCoy was created, said that taxpayers supported the project.

“They were done with the sole objective of keeping the PawSox in Rhode Island and keeping the PawSox in Pawtucket,” Pires said.

The city owns the stadium, named after former Mayor Thomas P. McCoy, leases it to the state, which in turn subleases it to the team.

The late Ben Mondor, who bought the team in 1977, is credited with turning the stadium and team around, making the PawSox an affordable, family-oriented destination. Mondor, who died in 2010, was able to reverse declining attendance.

According to information from the PawSox, attendance last year was 528,355, ranking it 10th among the 30 AAA teams.

In 2013, attendance topped 559,000, fueled by a weeklong appearance by the Red Sox’ David “Big Papi” Ortiz. In 2012, attendance was 531,000. The Charlotte Knights in North Carolina – the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox – led attendance last year with 660,000 – it was the first year in its brand-new $54 million, 12,000-seat stadium, according to a PawSox spokesman.

Charlotte’s success was highlighted in The Pawtucket Foundation draft report, drawn up to inspire the new PawSox ownership. Once a “desolate urban area of the city with the exception of limited Carolina Panthers NFL games,” public-sector and private investment transformed the Charlotte stadium area into a mix of midrise apartments, bars, restaurants and a new office tower, the report stated.

STILL FIGHTING

While the future of McCoy, tucked in a primarily residential neighborhood surrounded by triple-deckers and a scattering of businesses, is in question, officials have not given up hope that the team will remain in Pawtucket.

They have committed to fight for the team, whose home opener is April 16 against the Rochester Red Wings, and are trying to convince the new owners to stay.

“The last thing the city wants to do is to lose the Pawtucket Red Sox,” Grebien said. Grebien said he recently sent a letter requesting another meeting with Skeffington.

Skeffington told PBN he is willing to listen to the mayor and said he agreed to the meeting, which has not been scheduled.

“I will be happy to listen to any plan they have,” Skeffington said. He added he’s heard from several communities, including Worcester, Mass., that want to host the team. Worcester, Pires says, was also discussed as an alternative site for the team before the 1999 renovations.

Grebien said his administration has been busy in recent weeks meeting with city leaders, business owners, constituents and other interested parties to see “what can be done to convince the new owners that the rightful home of the PawSox is in Pawtucket.” He also has had conversations with Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and the city’s legislative delegation to continue to emphasize the team’s value to the city.

“We are all on the same page [in the city] that the “Paw” should be kept in PawSox,” Grebien said in an email.

As Robert D. Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, put it, a slim chance “means there’s still a chance.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Grebien said an economic-impact study was never done for the team, though he thinks the new owners may have done something similar.

According to PBN’s annual Book of Lists, the Pawtucket Red Sox rank fifth in a list of the top 25 Rhode Island attractions, posting attendance of 750,000 in 2013 – a figure that also includes other events held at the stadium in addition to baseball games.

While the Pawtucket Red Sox do not pay any taxes to the city – a benefit that in itself would seemingly make staying in Pawtucket all the more appealing – the team’s presence has a ripple effect in that it hires approximately 300 people each season for various positions at the ballpark – jobs that often go to city residents.

But the foundation report found the area around McCoy “generally underutilized,” with a retail sales gap of $182 million [money spent annually by Pawtucket residents outside the city] that could reasonably support an additional 200,000 square feet of development. The report states the need for retailers, including a grocery store, clothing stores and computer stores, all within the vicinity of McCoy.

“There is little commercial activity in the neighborhood. … With forward planning, and the collaboration of public and private partners, the city of Pawtucket and Pawtucket Red Sox have the capacity to develop a destination mixed-use, stadium district,” the report stated

The team does help support the few businesses that surround the 46,521-square-foot stadium.

The Right Spot diner, located just outside the ballpark, is filled with PawSox memorabilia. Co-owner Julia Tsimikas said the team does bring in business, but there is nothing that can be done if the move to Providence happens.

“We’ll try to do our best to survive. What can we do?” she said.

Jeff Wang, co-owner of Mei King Chinese restaurant, which is directly across from the stadium, said the proximity is one of the reasons he bought the restaurant late last year, before the reports of a possible sale. Wang thinks the team’s departure would only hurt his business.

“We already have a perfectly good field,” said Jessica L. Dawes, a bartender at Mei King “Why go blow millions of dollars on a new stadium? Then what do you do with an empty ballfield?”

Talk about additional development around the ballpark began about two years ago with the former PawSox ownership, but never progressed much beyond talk, Grebien said. Any development that would occur would be a combination of public and private partnerships and tax-increment financing, he said.

Though the stadium is surrounded by lots of housing, the city also owns approximately 22 acres around it, and plans were in the works to make room available for an expansion, if necessary.

Grebien said if the team does leave, he is prepared to ask the state legislature for equal funding.

“If the state legislature is going to incentivize the new owners to relocate the team from one urban, distressed community to another, then they should provide that same level of financial commitment to Pawtucket to ensure that we are left whole,” Grebien said.

BIG HOLE TO FILL

When many think of Pawtucket, a blue-collar city of 71,000 along the Blackstone River, two things often come to mind – the Pawtucket Red Sox and historic Slater Mill, a throwback to the days of the city’s textile dominance – and they remain its biggest draws.

The city was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – the nation’s first true mill town. And city officials say there is more to Pawtucket today than just its minor league baseball team.

They point to projects in the works, such as an off-road bike path behind City Hall and the restoration of festival pier off School Street for fishing and boating as positives, as well as the recent Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park designation.

Grebien also points to other success stories for the city – Pet Food Experts in Cumberland moving its corporate office downtown and bringing with it 100 jobs, as well as Tunstall Americas moving to Pawtucket (a mile away from McCoy) last year from New York, bringing up to 350 jobs.

Mills throughout the city also have been repurposed as homes to a thriving creative-arts sector.

But if the team does move, nothing comes close to the PawSox in the city in terms of tourism, said Robert D. Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.

“It’s very difficult to replace a stadium. … It’s very difficult for any city to replace that kind of economic impact. It’s totally different from any other business,” Billington said. “It has millions of customer visits and there’s nostalgia around that park, like there’s nostalgia around Fenway.

“Tell me what else is going to replace that economic punch,” Billington said.

Without the team, he doesn’t see how the neighborhood around the stadium could be revitalized.

“It’s like building a mall without a Macy’s,” Billington said. “You’ve got to have an anchor.”

Pires said the city has received queries from the Cape Cod baseball league and other professional and semi-professional teams about using the stadium if the PawSox leave.

The sale has forced officials to think about using the stadium for other uses, something it never planned for, Pires said.

The city has reached out the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University to do a study to determine the “highest and best use of that site.”

Pires said the stadium could be demolished, to make room for a new high school, as the city’s two high schools are old – one is more than 100 years old, the other, about 80 years old.

“Our focus is to remain in the game, so McCoy is home of the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. We’d like to see professional sports activity,” Pires reiterated. “Absent that, a public-use facility, and absent that, the location itself could become a regional high school or mixed industrial-commercial.”

PawSox memorabilia is currently on display inside City Hall. Featuring autographed photographs of players and baseballs and figurines of players, it has been up since January and will be removed next month. It is part of rotating art exhibits and symbolic of the team’s ties to the community, which include regular youth clinics at the stadium.

“The PawSox are woven so deeply into the fabric of the city, it is impossible to imagine they will not remain,” Grebien said. “At the end of the day, if the PawSox left it would be like ripping the heart out of the city.” •

5 COMMENTS

  1. Rhode Island and Pawtucket should propose three projects to stimulate economic development around McCoy Stadium. Make plans for a bike path connection between McCoy Stadium and the East Bay Bike Path at the Washington Bridge in East Providence using the P&W rail right of way. Provide funding to make McCoy Stadium Fenway North by building a “Green Monster” wall in left field, bleacher seating in center field and pitcher bull pens in right field. Ask for federal funding to connect the existing and still operating 1.5 mile P&W rail right of way to the main Amtrak right of way to Boston. This would make a MBTA Commuter Rail Station adjacent to McCoy Stadium possible. There has been talk about building a MBTA Commuter Rail Station in Pawtucket. Why not at McCoy Stadium which is a central location with plenty of parking. The MBTA is planning to spend billions of dollars improving their commuter rail systems to improve their chances for a successful Olympic bid.

  2. Pawtucket is behind the eight ball on this project for twol basic reasons. First, the city has failed to attract private risk capital to the city for any developments. How often have we heard about modest development projects along the riverfront only to see that nothing happens. Second, the area around McCoy lacks diversity of use and is basically unattractive, and to change that would require a multi faceted plan (something much more than a MTA stop) involving massive investment dollars. If you can’t do modest, how can you do large scale developments. Also, given Pawtucket’s inability to attract private capital, much of their proposals involve state funding. That is how McCoy was renovated in the first place. Why would taxpayers want to get involved with such a massive state investment given the Providence option involves much less.

    Whining that the Pawtucket officials were not given the opportunity to make their case ignores the investment failures of the past. Why would the new Pawsox owners believe anything presented? Why would you go to a city that requires such a large redevelopment project when you can go elsewhere and not face that challenge, and in this game, it’s not only Providence that offers that attractiveness.

  3. With a revitalized McCoy Stadium, a new MBTA commuter rail station, a bike path that extended to Bristol and the development of the new Blackstone River Valley National Park, a five star hotel would be perfect for the area around McCoy Stadium. Visitors could stay at the hotel and be able to see a game at McCoy Stadium, tour the new National Park, ride a bike to Bristol and view the historic Bristol Fourth of July Parade, ride a bike to Providence to see a Broadway Play at the Providence Performing Arts Center, commute to Boston to see the Boston Red Sox /Bruins and visit all of Boston’s historic sites and when it is time to go home, these visitors could commute to the new T. F. Green International Airport.

  4. Ken B., I get your point. I do understand your desire to keep the status quo. However, everything on your future wish list would require massive PUBLIC investment and years of planning, development and construction (really would be decades given Pawtucket’s history here)…and it all already exists in Providence. Bike path to Bristol, check; RIPTA transit hub, check; Amtrak/MBTA station, check; restaurants, check; hotels, check; historic sites, check; conntection to TF Green and Boston, check! I don’t want to be a wet blanket on you, but it really is hard to take Pawtucket seriously at this stage of the game.

  5. To Ken C—Because of the 38 Studios fiasco, Governor Raimondo and the Rhode Island General Assembly will never approve a new stadium that requires land grants, tax breaks or any government financial subsidies. There is no proven fan support for a team in Providence and high ticket prices and parking fees will keep most Pawtucket fans at home. If attendance is low at the new stadium, the new owners of the PawSox will soon be asking Governor Raimondo and the General Assembly for financial aid which will not be given and the new stadium will become a “white elephant”. Providence has all the amenities but the cost to enter the new stadium will be too high. Pawtucket has very few amenities. In spite of this, last year McCoy Stadium drew more fans than 17 of the 30 Triple-A stadiums. When the new MBTA Commuter Rail Station and bike path are built, Boston area fans will be able to commute to McCoy Stadium and Fox Point residents will be able to ride their bikes to McCoy Stadium. Attendance at McCoy Stadium will increase and carbon emissions will decrease.