Listening to the opening salvos in the Providence stadium debate reminds one of William Faulkner’s dictum about the American South: "The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.’’
This stadium proposal is stalked at the Statehouse by the hungry vulture perched atop any economic development plan that requires public investment or taxpayer support – former Gov. Donald Carcieri’s and the General Assembly’s 38 Studios disaster. (In case you’ve been living underneath the Narragansett Bay Commission tunnel, that was the $75-million taxpayer –subsidized video game company, run by former Boston Red Sox World Series hero Curt Schilling, that went broke).
Perhaps the one thing every lawmaker on Smith Hill cares about more than a prime capitol parking space is getting reelected. The PawSox proposal has sent a collective shiver though the marble Statehouse dome. Lawmakers know that any deal that smacks of the 38 Studios debacle will be opposition issue number one in next year’s elections.
It doesn’t matter that this stadium proposal has nothing in common with Schilling’s pipe dream of becoming a video game magnate. The new owners of the Paw Sox are seasoned business executives and baseball experts, including Boston Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino and such celebrated Rhode Island business leaders as retired Fleet banker Terry Murray and retired CVS CEO Tom Ryan.
A stadium is a tangible asset, the farthest thing from 38 Studios, which was little more than a collection of hipster computer jockeys clicking away on laptops. Lucchino has vast experience building retro baseball stadiums that have enhanced their neighborhoods, including Camden Yards in Baltimore, Petco Park in San Diego, Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers and the widely-praised renovations to Fenway Park in Boston’s Back Bay.
Yes, there is $120 million in state resources in the original plan and the scepter of zero property taxes for 30 years for Providence, a city with deep financial issues and high property and car taxes. Yet this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme for the new owners; they are already rich.
So Rhode Islanders are wary of legislative deals carved in the dark of night, which was the case with 38 Studios. We are then left to trust Raimondo and her administration to vet the proposal. Will that be enough? On one side, our Rhodes Scholar and financial wizard governor and her top command are more than capable. On the other is the political reality of her vow not to be the governor who let the team leave Rhode Island and her troubling links to members of the new ownership, particularly Murray and Ryan, who gave her thousands in campaign dollars.
Maybe it is time to bring in someone to make a truly independent assessment. A group of smart folks with no political ambitions to vet this plan in the light of day, holding open hearings and employing accurate economic data. Do everything that wasn’t done with 38 Studios, a deal crafted in Statehouse back rooms and behind the closed doors of the state Economic Development Commission, which was chaired by Carcieri. Those of us who were there recall vividly Carcieri barring then-gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee, the most vocal opponent of the Schilling agreement, from even addressing the commission.
A good leader of an independent group would be Lincoln Almond, the former moderate Republican governor, a man known for sound judgment and unassailable integrity. When he was governor in the 1990s, Almond shaped a deal to build the Providence Place Mall that was notable for protecting state taxpayers against any liability if the project went sour. Almond is now retired and his political ambitions are long in the rear-view mirror.
More importantly, Almond walked away from another stadium deal, the proposal by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to move from Foxboro to a new stadium in Providence. Despite relentless cheerleading by other politicians, including Bruce Sundlun and Buddy Cianci, Almond had the fortitude and foresight to pull the plug when he sensed, correctly, that he and Rhode Island taxpayers were being scammed, used as leverage to get Massachusetts government to give Kraft money to help build the new stadium in Foxboro, which is what happened. (After Almond rejected the deal, Kraft took his Patriots road show to Connecticut, where he led a smoke-and-mirrors campaign that got Connecticut Gov. John Rowland to propose giving away the store for a Hartford stadium that, of course, never hosted one Patriots game). Almond got reelected; Rowland went to prison for a corruption scandal that was not related to the Patriots scheme.
Almond, of course, isn’t the lone Rhode Islander with the integrity and independence to carry out a honest and transparent scrutiny of any deal. But many of us would be more comfortable with an independent look at any taxpayer-subsidy deal, rather than having the usual Statehouse suspects and their interest-group buddies seize the process.
This we know: Rhode Island must someday get beyond the shadow of 38 Studios, or our small state will be condemned to living in a cinematic "Groundhog Day’’ economy, repeating the past and never evolving into the future. Do our lawmakers and governor have the political will to appoint an independent panel to look to the future?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 AM and on All Things Considered at 5:44 PM. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our On Politics Blog at RIPR.org.