The owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox plan to unveil Wednesday afternoon their proposal for building a new ballpark in Providence. Some observers are excited about the move to bring professional baseball to Rhode Island’s capital city. Yet others are wary about using public dollars for a private enterprise. There’s also debate about using part of a site targeted for high-wage jobs.
James Skeffington is the leading cheerleader for a Providence ballpark. That’s no surprise since Skeffington -- a lawyer and longtime power broker in the city -- is the president of the new ownership group that bought the PawSox in February.
"It is one of the best sites that many of our consultants have seen when they assessed the prospect of building a ballpark downtown," he said of the intended new home for the team.
Skeffington struck a poetic note in describing the envisioned ballpark’s vistas during a recent media tour of the site on the banks of the Providence River.
“If you’re sitting behind home plate, you’ll look out and you’ll see not only College Hill, but you’ll see a church steeple, the First Unitarian Church, which is quintessential New England," he said. "Imagine yourself on a summer night, watching a ballgame or a concert or a football game and seeing that beautiful steeple illuminated at night. And you’ll say, ‘Why, aren’t we fortunate to live here?’ ”
Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium has been the home of the Boston Red Sox’ top minor league team since 1970. Ben Mondor bought the PawSox in 1977 and he was revered for reviving McCoy as a source of quality baseball at family-friendly prices. But the PawSox’ future was cast into uncertainty when Mondor died in 2010.
Skeffington said the new ownership will pay to build a ballpark on about 8 acres of the land made available by the relocation of I-195. He said the PawSox need a new venue to boost attendance, and that McCoy Stadium lacks surrounding amenities to attract fans.
The PawSox’ new ownership is expected to seek some kind of public subsidy, and Skeffington calls that the norm for most Triple A baseball teams. He points to positive press about the economic impact of new minor league ballparks in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Durham, North Carolina. What’s more, Skeffington said, a new home for the PawSox will complement the idea of remaking the 195 land as as an innovation district.
"The potential site that we’re talking about for the development of a ballpark should enhance the prospects of attracting the kind of bio-med life science industries that we want to have in Rhode Island," he said.
A few blocks away, in a downtown office building on Dorrance Street, tech entrepreneur Angus Davis doesn’t buy the argument that a new ballpark would bring more emerging companies to Providence. He’s the head of the startup company Swipely, and doesn’t think baseball would lead emerging companies to choose Providence.
"Would it be nice to walk to the ballpark?" Davis asked. "Absolutely. Is it going to be the reason we move here? No."
Davis is an enthusiastic baseball fan. But when it comes to public dollars for a new ballpark in Providence, he says he’s more concerned about the bottom line for taxpayers.
"The ownership group of the Rhode Island Red Sox is well-funded and I think that they ought to be capable as strong business people of pursuing this thing on its own merit," Davis said.
Walking into a coffee shop on Wickenden Street, across the Providence River, Fox Point neighborhood activist Daisy Schnepel says the neighbors she talks with mostly have a dim view of the proposed ballpark. Schnepel says residents are worried about increased noise and lighting and potential parking headaches. And she says neighbors question how a ballpark jibes with the intended reuse of the former I-195 land as an innovation district.
"They’re concerned that the jobs that will come for the ballpark are low-paying jobs and we’re looking to put in high-tech and larger industries," Schnepel said.
Skeffington said this kind of argument doesn’t add up, since most of the envisioned ballpark site was intended for a park. He said two garages planned nearby would absorb a lot of the cars for fans coming to games, and that fans outside Providence would be able to use public transit to come and go.
Cars zip by empty dirt-strewn lots near the envisioned site of a Providence ballpark, part of 20 acres of former I-195 land. There are few visible signs of progress in the area envisioned as a catalyst for economic development. Two proposals are moving ahead, although high commercial taxes in Providence, and lower rents than can be charged in Boston, have discouraged more development from taking place.
Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget includes $25 million in incentives meant to spark more interest in the former I-195 land. I-195 Redevelopment Commission executive director Jan Brodie holds out hope that the governor’s incentive, combined with some kind of added tax benefit, will trigger heightened interest in the land.
"This is a very logical location to put high-density, high-profile, high-income job, basically an innovation hub," Brodie said. "It is surrounded by innovation kind of enterprises going on. We would like to see a lot of great new jobs coming right here."
Like Raimondo, Brodie remains non-committal on how a ballpark would impact development plans for the 195 District.
"I’ll have to wait to see what the proposal really is all about," Brodie said. "I, like many, have concerns about fit. We’ve discovered there are major utility lines and other constraints that just make us anxious to see what the actual footprint is of the ballpark."
The Providence Journal has reported that a high-pressure gas main and a storm water sewage collection system would have to be moved to make way for the ballpark. Just how the new owners of the PawSox plan to overcome those and other obstacles are expected to be part of their pitch.