Out the picture windows of his Pawtucket bookstore, Steven Porter can see what might have been.
With a sweep of his hand, he identified the location and estimated the distance from his corner to what should have been the Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark at 150 to 200 yards.
Not too long ago, that was the future, a magnetic anchor for downtown Pawtucket that had already started to attract inquiries from businesses and developers.
“We would have been the closest retailer to the ballpark,” said Porter, who opened Stillwater Books in March.
He and his wife, Dawn Porter, signed a seven-year lease before the team had considered a downtown location. Steven Porter estimates the decision publicly announced in August by the team to move to Worcester, Mass., rather than build a new stadium in Pawtucket, will take away hundreds of thousands of potential visitors.
“I would have been 150 to 200 yards away from 450,000 people,” Porter said, citing an estimate for PawSox attendance. He’s still angry about what might have been.
“Acute frustration,” he said. “Here was this opportunity to revitalize the downtown in one fell swoop.” And while he’s heard a lot of good ideas about possible substitutes that could go into the Apex site, where the ballpark would have been located, none has the same potential.
Across Pawtucket, small-business owners and elected officials have tried to measure what was lost when the PawSox announced the team would break ties with the city that has hosted it since the early 1970s.
Beyond the political questions of how state leaders allowed the team to decide it was better off leaving Rhode Island, the immediacy of what happens next for Pawtucket is all-consuming for shop owners whose livelihoods are tied to downtown visitors.
And people who live and work around the existing ballpark, at McCoy Stadium, want to know that it isn’t going to become an empty hole. The neighborhood already has Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, which has dramatically downscaled operations this year.
Care New England continues to operate a primary care center at the campus, but the pale pink and larger, red brick hospital buildings are vacated. A chain draped over the parking lot entrance tells visitors in plain language: “Hospital is closed.”
Between the hospital and the ball team, longtime residents feel like the anchors of their community are leaving. Yes, a new train stop is coming in 2020 on the commuter rail, but it isn’t generating the same kind of excitement as the expectations that were tied to a new ballpark that potentially could have included retail, hotel, restaurant, entertainment and residential components.
The train station could lead to ancillary development tied to the direct link to both Boston and Providence. But so far, no business has opened near the planned stop.
For Porter, the baseball team moving to Worcester represents a missed opportunity, not just for him but for the city and state. His own business is largely dependent on his activities as a book publisher – he sells one of the largest selections of Rhode Island authors in the state – but he had hoped to see the business of the ballpark lead to more investment in the downtown. After following the progress, and then lack thereof of the legislation to keep the PawSox in Rhode Island, he ultimately wasn’t surprised by the team’s decision.
He heard about the team’s move to Massachusetts when he started getting calls from reporters. “You always hope against hope that something was going to change at the 11th hour,” Porter said.
He had many inquiries from other business owners and investors, looking to develop or locate in downtown sites. They asked him about the city, about the team, about downtown issues. One represented a gourmet waffle restaurant, which had its eyes on a vacant storefront in his building.
Another represented someone interested in opening a brew pub. All have since disappeared.
Larger developers also pulled out following the announcement of the team.
Churchill & Banks is no longer interested in developing a site known as the Tidewater property, where it had expressed preliminary interest last fall in a residential or mixed-use development, according to Mayor Donald R. Grebien.
And a hotel developer also has withdrawn its plan to build a companion to the city’s only hotel.
Small businesses that survive downtown are destination businesses that tend to have audiences drawn to them specifically. They aren’t relying on passersby.
Artee Fabrics & Home, a fabric store, draws a home-sewing and crafters audience.
At Bake My Day, a bakery that opened in 2017, most of the business is for phone orders or catered events, said owner Stacey Riendeau. After she arrived, she organized an alliance of people and business owners interested in downtown. It’s called the Pawtucket Downtown Alliance Group, and its volunteers fan out regularly to pick up trash and paint graffiti off walls.
Riendeau, who runs regularly through the city, takes a “broken window” theory to business development.
“I say we start at the bottom,” she said. “Everybody’s got this big vision of what the city is going to turn into. I say, if we just start at the bottom, and clean it thoroughly, then visually it will be attractive.”
The city will survive the loss of the PawSox, she said, but it has to start doing concrete things to make the downtown better. Landlords, she said, could take better care of their buildings.
“Like landscaping. If you have graffiti on your windows, I think it’s your responsibility to clean it up,” she said. “You’ve got broken windows – change them out instead of putting plywood up. The simple upkeep, we lack.”
Now in his eighth year as mayor, Grebien has the task of restoring the morale of his community.
Days after the loss of the team, in his first public statement, he vowed to continue to pursue the acquisition of the Apex site for a more-fitting redevelopment, and to find an alternate use for McCoy Stadium.
The city owns the ballpark, which it leases to the state. The state, in turn, leases the ballpark to the team.
Altogether, the stadium now contributes about $200,000 a year in taxes to the city through its share of the state meal tax. The state will lose more with the loss of the team, about $1.9 million to $2.3 million in public revenue, as well as $37,000 in annual lease payments, according to the state Senate Fiscal Office. The team’s lease at McCoy runs through the 2020 season.
Around the neighborhood of McCoy, the damage from the loss of Memorial Hospital is already being felt. Business owners say they are worried about what will happen with the ballpark.
Mei King Chinese restaurant looks out on McCoy, the ballpark entrance visible from the windows in its bar.
Owner Jeff Wang said he’s already lost lunch business thanks to the reduction in workers at Memorial. He used to see more people in scrubs. He’s worried about what will happen to McCoy.
“It’s helped in the summertime,” he said of business tied to the ballpark. “Before the game, usually customers come in here for dinner and to have some drinks.” Fireworks at the ballpark also draw families. “Usually for many restaurants, [in] the summertime it slows down.”
Wang is fatalistic about what might happen. He doesn’t feel like he has much of a say. But he hopes the ballpark gets a repurpose. “It’s a waste if it’s empty there. If you’re doing something here, people will come,” he said.
Beyond that, he’s sad for his regulars who mostly live in Pawtucket. In conversations after the decision, he’s heard their sorrow. “They grew up with [the team],” he said. The name of the city is associated with the team. Without it? “If people think about Pawtucket, they think about McCoy. Now, Pawtucket? Nothing.”
Once the PawSox leave in two years, the city will regain the ballpark. Most of the site is limited to a recreational use, Grebien said, because of a deed restriction in the original property conveyance to the city.
Its redevelopment potential also is limited by its surroundings.
Hemmed in by residential neighborhoods dominated by triple-deckers and small, modest homes, it doesn’t seem a likely candidate for razing for mixed-use or multifamily housing.
Grebien said he’s already been contacted by several representatives of teams, including a women’s soccer team and independent baseball leagues. He’s having ongoing conversations with R.I. Commerce Corp. about possible new uses for the site.
A municipal use, a consolidated school site, additional recreational opportunities, such as a concert venue or a high school athletic use, all are on the table.
A feasibility study issued in January 2017 found McCoy would require between $68 million and $78 million to be renovated or replaced as a Triple-A ballpark, given its deterioration. The stadium was last renovated in 1999 and needs significant repairs to its structure and systems due to water infiltration, and use.
The state plans to revisit the report, which did not identify alternate uses outside a ballpark, and issue its recommendations on a repurpose within the next several weeks. The timeline is speedy, potentially early October.
How much will it cost to repurpose, and what can it become?
For the mayor, the priority for redevelopment of Pawtucket lies in the central business district.
Little has changed in the area over the past three years, since the fate of the PawSox first came into question. Initially, the new ownership team sought a downtown site in Providence. A year later, a revised proposal was introduced for the downtown Pawtucket location now occupied by Apex.
The former department store, noted for its pyramid-shaped roof, is largely vacant.
The site has to be redeveloped, said Grebien, who hopes to work with the property owner but has also floated the option of eminent domain, in which the government can purchase a site for economic-development purposes.
“What we’re looking at is to either work in conjunction with the property owner, to get the highest and best use as a private-public partnership, or as an eminent-domain option, or a purchase option,” Grebien said.
The city and owner are having ongoing discussions, he said.
“The discussion has always been, how do we get control of that land? We made it clear, we can’t have this prolonged for another five years, another 20 years. We know we need to have some action now,” Grebien said.
What could go into the site? That’s where the state comes in.
Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has promised to work with the city, to help it find a new use for McCoy Stadium and for its downtown. Initially, she pledged beautification funds around the new train stop.
Pawtucket needs and is seeking a great deal more.
The city needs a comprehensive incentives package to encourage development from the riverfront site through downtown to the train station being developed, Grebien said.
Providence has received state assistance through the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, as well as downtown sites. “They collectively have put [more than] $400 million into Providence incentives,” Grebien said. “We need incentives … so we can go out and market this.”
All is not lost with the end of the PawSox, he says, but the city needs help. If it could have built a ballpark for the PawSox without state assistance, it would have moved ahead on its own.
“I need to build the morale and the commitment from the state, as well as the morale from the community,” Grebien said. “We have value. Here is our value.”
What form that takes is unknown.
Rep. Mary Messier, D-Pawtucket, whose state district includes the area around McCoy, said she’s confident another use will be found for the ballpark facility. The downtown, she said, will need more help, and the state needs to invest in the city.
Pawtucket, the state’s fourth-largest city, has had a spiral of poor news, from the closure of the hospital to the PawSox announcement.
“Everybody needs to get together on whatever is happening,” she said. “If you put the money into Pawtucket, it’s going to ward off what ended up happening in Central Falls [which came out of 13 months of bankruptcy in 2012]. Put the money forward, so you don’t have that scenario where everyone moves out.”
Just a few years ago, things seemed stable in Pawtucket. “Things were moving along. Then the dominoes started falling,” she said.
The potential remains for a revival of downtown energy, through an already existing national park designation that takes in the Old Slater Mill National Historic Landmark District to the new train station and surrounding development that may come in its wake. The city also could take advantage of the Blackstone River, a natural asset that rolls through properties that include the Apex site and the city-owned Tidewater property.
After years of inactivity, the city this year started the long-sought renovation of its municipal parking garage, a tired, poorly lit structure on Main Street that had little visibility from the street thanks to a line of small retail shops that had fronted the structure. Those vacated stores have now been demolished. The rehabbed parking structure should provide a more attractive and convenient space for parking downtown, according to city officials.
The Pawtucket Foundation, a nonprofit, is investigating whether a newly created federal mechanism, called an opportunity zone, could help revive the city’s commercial center. The federal program identified five census tracts in Pawtucket, including those that encompass the downtown and the Conant-Thread manufacturing district, said Jan Brodie, its executive director.
The program would create a mechanism for profitable businesses to secure tax credits by investing unrealized capital gains into designated nonprofits that will redevelop within the identified zones.
The transit-oriented development that Pawtucket is trying to encourage around its train station seems a likely beneficiary. The program is still getting final approvals, and additional funding from the state would be needed, in the form of a tax credit, to assure investors of a modest return, Brodie said.
“I think we have momentum now to help that along,” she said. “It’s also in the state’s interest to put money behind the development around the train station. The train station alone is only as good as a stop. What makes it a driver is to get the development around it going. That is economic development for the state, not just the city.”
Although the Pawtucket Foundation had a preliminary report a few years ago that looked at the possible new uses around McCoy, Grebien described it as an informal review that identified possibilities but was not a concrete plan for the next steps.
What the city now is trying to do, and plans to meet this week with state officials, is to strategize about what needs to happen next.
“The first step is to look at the McCoy site and what the reuse would be there,” he said. “Downtown, [it] is what incentives, what tools, will the state be able to give the community?”
Ultimately, if the state can’t give any incentives to the community, the city can’t move ahead on any plan to redevelop Apex. It doesn’t have the funds, Grebien said.
“We can’t do it alone,” said the mayor.
Mary MacDonald is a PBN staff writer. Email her at MacDonald@PBN.com