Another day in Providence, another desultory meeting on the plan to move the Pawtucket Red Sox from McCoy Stadium to a new ballpark to be built on the capital city’s downtown waterfront.
Today’s meeting featured Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, who spoke about the finances of minor league stadiums around the nation at a meeting with reporters, labor leaders and a small group of state lawmakers at the offices of the Locke Lord LLC law firm.
A burly, folksy southerner, the Florida-based O’Conner told the gathering that most minor league stadiums –75 percent or so—are built with public subsidies of some form or another. He also said that in many instances, these new stadiums help to bring ancillary economic development to the areas near the parks, including hotels, restaurants, condo developments and shopping attractions.
O’Conner also called for patience while details of any deal are negotiated and argued against a rush to judgement on a taxpayer subsidy. ``The deal is not done until it is done,’’ he said.
But several lawmakers weren’t buying his arguments. It is clear that in some political quarters, Rhode Island’s traditional parochialism and mistrust of anything new has been coupled with the lingering hangover from former Gov. Don Carcieri’s ill-fated 2010 38 Studios fiasco that left taxpayers holding the bag for more than $75 million in state bonds for former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s bankrupt video game company.
The objections ranged from the silly to the serious, along with the expected parochial concerns of Pawtucket lawmakers who obviously object to the cherished team’s move from McCoy.
Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown said she is worried about traffic jams that would occur when games are played in the evening in Providence. She wondered how fans who drive to games would be able to make it on time for 7 p.m. games, a concern she said was voiced to her by constituents.
O’Conner said that traffic is an issue in every jurisdiction where a new stadium is built. He said that traffic engineers can usually fashion a solution to getting fans to and from a stadium.
Paul MacDonald, a longtime Rhode Island labor leader and the head of the Providence Central Labor Council, downplayed Costa’s comments, saying that fans have scant difficulty making 7 p.m. games at the Dunkin Donuts Center for such athletic attraction as Providence College basketball and Providence Bruins hockey. ``I’m at the Dunkin Donuts Center almost 100 times a year and I have no trouble getting there on time,’’ said MacDonald.
The biggest objection, lawmakers acknowledged, is the 38 Studios precedent. ``You just can’t discount the 38 Studios affect,’’ said Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston. ``If that hadn’t happened this would be a different story. But it did and that is the reality we are dealing with.’’
O’Conner said that the stadium has become a target for ``some stray bullets.’’ He also said he would not get into the details of negotiations between state political leaders and the new Paw Sox ownership led by Larry Lucchino, president of the Boston Red Sox, the Paw Sox parent club.
Rep. Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket, says he has to stick up for his community, but acknowledged that if the team is intent on moving, his responsibility is to try to get the best deal for ``the taxpayers.’’
It isn’t news that Rhode Islanders are skeptical of anything new. MacDonald reminded the audience of about 35 that there was widespread opposition to the original plan for the Providence Civic Center, the expansion of T.F. Green State Airport and construction of the Providence Place Mall. Years later, all of those projects have received support and have contributed to economic activity in Providence and Warwick.
The public relations rollout under the late James Skeffington, a prominent Providence lawyer, wasn’t the best. He and his ownership group put a number of a state subsidy of $120 million over 30 years along with a request to avoid property taxes on the downtown riverfront land on which the stadium would be built.
That figure jumped out at some lawmakers and Rhode Islanders as too much the giveaway. Others sung the familiar refrain of `what’s wrong with McCoy Stadium’ as if the team was sentenced to remain in a part of Pawtucket that is difficult to get to and has few nearby amenities.
When asked why McCoy couldn’t be renovated to make it more attractive, O’Conner said it would be too expensive for the additional revenue that could be gained. ``That pig ain't gonna sing anymore.’’
Attendance has been declining for years at McCoy, despite affordable ticket prices.
O’Conner also said that the move to Providence would not have an appreciable impact on Pawtucket’s economy. ``The emotional loss will be bigger than the economic loss.’’
It is time to let the negotiations progress in hopes the new PawSox owners can live with a less generous subsidy plan.
One of the difficulties in assessing public opinion is that there have been no reliable public opinion surveys of state voters. Joseph Fleming, long time Rhode Island political pollster, said no one has commissioned him to conduct such a poll.
Maybe it is time for one by a neutral party, such as a media organization that could afford a comprehensive survey by a reliable pollster.