Tidewater funding woes place Rhode Island FC in home field disadvantage

PIERCE MEMORIAL Stadium in East Providence is an option for Rhode Island FC for their inaugural season in 2024. Financing woes have stalled the $124 million Pawtucket soccer stadium project where the new United Soccer League team is supposed to play. /PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CITY EAST PROVIDENCE VIA RHODE ISLAND CURRENT

Rhode Island doesn’t have a full roster of premier sports venues.

And with financing woes slowing the $124 million Pawtucket soccer stadium project where the new United Soccer League team is supposed to play, Rhode Island FC might need a backup pitch on which to kick off their 2024 season. Team President Brett Luy hinted as much in a letter to season ticket holders last month. 

Which begs the question: where could they go? 

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, a stalwart defender of the Tidewater project despite its money problems, is rooting for the team to start somewhere in Pawtucket. Indeed, project proponents tout the jobs, tax revenue and tourism the stadium (and accompanying residential and commercial development) would bring to the city as a key reason for their support.  

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But alternative playing spots in Pawtucket are limited, Grebien acknowledged in an interview Thursday. McCoy Stadium hasn’t been maintained since the Pawtucket Red Sox left for Worcester in 2021, and the city has started working on plans to build a new high school there.  

Max Read Field, the 85,000-square-foot synthetic turf field a half-mile south of the Tidewater stadium site, has the field space but not nearly enough seating for the 3,900 people who already paid deposits for season tickets. 

“If it’s just a couple of games, maybe that would be ok,” Grebien said. “If by the third game, we’re at the new stadium, you might not worry so much about what that first field is.” 

How many games, if any, are played at a backup site hinges upon when the new stadium is ready. 

Construction work continues on the banks of the Pawtucket River, with developer Fortuitous Partners already having spent $25 million of private investment into the site, according to Mike Raia, a spokesman for Rhode Island FC. 

“Work would not have started or advanced to this level if there were not complete confidence in the full capital stack being raised,” Raia said in an email Monday. “The process remains ongoing and there is a pathway for completion in the near future.” 

But Fortuitous still hasn’t raised all the investment money needed to cover its $80 million share of the stadium price tag. And the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency is waiting to issue the $27 million in state government bonds until the private fundraising is finished. 

 Meanwhile, East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva is trying to score a win for the city to temporarily host the team at Pierce Memorial Stadium. 

“We’d go down in history as the first community to host the state’s new professional soccer team,” DaSilva said. “I think it would be a nice thing for our city, and it’s a unique opportunity for them to grow their fan base.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time the East Providence stadium has been used for professional soccer games; in the 1970s and 80s, it hosted several European soccer games. In the mid-2000s, it was home to the Rhode Island Stingrays, with high-profile games against powerhouses like Portugal’s SL Benfica. 

Logistically, Pierce also makes sense, DaSilva said. It’s close to the highway, and to the actual project site. Sizewise, the 6,000-person stadium fits the bill, especially with accommodations to potentially add a few thousand more seats (an upgrade DaSilva expected the team to pay for if they wanted it.). The city has spent a little over $1 million on renovations of Pierce – the field, the athletic complex and a new community splash pad – since DaSilva took office in 2019, said Patrica Resende, city spokesperson. 

And with East Providence High School students using the new, outdoor turf fields that replaced the old high school building, Pierce isn’t seeing much action beyond recreational youth leagues and the city’s annual summer fireworks show, DaSilva said. 

The same can’t be said for some other potential venues across the state, which already have other recreational and professional sports teams vying for playing time. 

“We are already looking for space to expand for our own recreational use,” said North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi. “We just don’t have the landmass available.” 

University of Rhode Island athletic fields are also off the table due to scheduling conflicts with university athletic uses, spokesman Dave Lavallee said.  

The Newport Rugby Football Club has “pretty much exclusive use” of the fields at Fort Adams for the playing season, with other times filled up by music and sailing events, said Mike Healey, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which manages the fort as a state park. 

And there’s “absolutely no way” the Rhode Island Convention Center or Amica Mutual Pavilion could work because the team needs to play outdoors on natural grass, said Daniel McConaghy, executive director for the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority which operates both venues. (Rhode Island FC has never said it needs an outdoor venue or or natural grass field). 

Other contenders are playing the waiting game.  

Brown University would be “happy to connect” if the team reached out (so far, they haven’t) according to Brian Clark, a university spokesman. Clark declined to comment on if the university was interested in, or able to, host the team.  

The city of Providence has also not discussed hosting the team, spokesman Josh Estrella said. 

Rhode Island FC won’t say where it’s looking, or even what it’s looking for in a backup venue. Raia said the team will share information once the “venue situation” is finalized. 

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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