One of the principals of the new Pawtucket Red Sox ownership has died abruptly and was laid to rest over the weekend.. RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay assays the future of the Providence stadium plan.
Jim Skeffington cut quite a figure in Rhode Island. The Providence native scaled the heights of the legal profession in his hometown and was the go-to-guy for political and business deals. His bespoke bankers’ pinstripes and Ferragamo ties masked a sharp understanding, from the bottom up, of Rhode Island’s florid political and business cultures.
Even as his large family and many friends paid final respects to Skeffington over the weekend, the talk among Rhode Island’s political and business hierarchy has been: What happens next to the proposal to move the Boston Red Sox top minor league team from aging McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket to a new ball park on the downtown Providence riverfront?
The biggest question in the aftermath of Skeffington’s death is who will step up as the point person for a plan that has drawn brickbats – some justified and some not – from Providence’s East Side and some state lawmakers.
The new Paw Sox team has sought to tamp down speculation that Skeffington’s passing changes anything. The message from Larry Lucchino, Skeffington ally and a lead PawSawx owner, is that Skeffington’s dream of an architecturally pleasing downtown stadium did not die with him.
Lucchino’s stay-the-course- campaign is, naturally, based on getting a deal that includes some level of public subsidy to build the stadium on land cleared by the razing of the Interstate-195 highway that once sliced through the core of the capital city, cutting off downtown from it’s heritage as a port at the top of Narragansett Bay.
The public relations roll-out for this project hasn’t been the best. Before the merits of moving the stadium from Pawtucket to Providence were vetted, the public subsidy issue overshadowed all else. When the new owners asked for free land and a $120 million taxpayer subsidy over 30 years for the new park, the critics pounced.
It may not be polite to speak ill of the dead, but Skeffington and company did themselves no favors by requesting the big subsidy, demanding that the proposal get an up or down vote in the current General Assembly session and implying that if lawmakers and Governor Gina Raimondo wouldn’t agree to a deal, they would consider moving the team to Massachusetts.
Now may be time for Lucchino, also president of the Boston Red Sox, and his partners to reconfigure the plan to bring it more into line with what Rhode Islanders can afford. First, the new owners should consider other sites nearby, particularly the open land on the so-called Victory Plating land in the Jewelry District. This site is only about a David Ortiz home run from the 195 parcel and has better highway access.
The subsidy issue must be confronted head-on. The owners must be willing to whittle down their request to something that most of us consider reasonable for such a promising new attraction in Providence. Government subsidies have been used to promote public goods since John Adams built the lighthouses to steer shipping along the New England coast in the 18th century. Railroads, highways, airports and even the Internet were built with government grants. Robert Kraft built Gillette Stadium in Foxboro in the 1990s with private money, but also had more than $70 million in infrastructure help from Massachusetts for roads and other amenities for the stadium.
Lucchino must also understand that Rhode Island politics is provincial, parochial and contentious. Rhode Islanders relish arguments. Lucchino likely gets this; Boston’s political culture is similar. In these ancient New England capitals, the old saw is that the Statehouses are dominated by politics, sports and revenge - not necessarily in that order.
Another element is not to insist on artificial deadlines, such as trying to get this done in the waning hours of the current Assembly session. Nothing good ever happened after midnight at the Statehouse. A special session in the fall would give lawmakers more time to forge an agreement.
As they mourn their friend and partner, Jim Skeffington, the new ownership group should start anew by negotiating a deal that doesn’t seem like a taxpayer giveaway to the well-heeled. A good start would be meeting with neighborhood groups in Providence, al la Skeffington. Building positive public opinion is a must. Relying solely on the power players at the Statehouse won’t make this deal happen.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org