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It’s Official: PawSox to Worcester, Polar Park in 2021

New Worcester ballpark concept

Owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox (Class AAA; International League) and the city of Worcester have agreed on a letter of intent to bring the PawSox to a new Kelly Square ballpark, tentative named Polar Park, for the 2021 season.

“We are eager to build an innovative, family-friendly ballpark that reflects the love and appreciation of baseball and that unifies Central Massachusetts and the Blackstone Valley Corridor,” PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino said in a press statement.

“We look forward to designing and building an innovative downtown ballpark with year-round uses that further enlivens the city, enhances its civic self-esteem, and adds to its beauty. We are eager to create a wonderful point of pride for children and students and families throughout Central Massachusetts,” he added.

New Worcester ballpark concept

The total cost of the ballpark is expected to be $90 million, with the city of Worcester borrowing $100.8 million ($70.6 million in general obligations bonds, $30.2 in bonds backed by team rent payments) to cover construction costs and the PawSox owners paying $6 million toward construction. (Compare that to the $45 million the state of Rhode Island wanted from owners to pay toward a new Pawtucket ballpark.) Rent payments are pegged at a little over a million dollars annually, for a total of $30.2 million over 30 years. Worcester officials say increased tax payments generated from the project, including additional development, will cover the difference (a District Improvement Financing area — the Massachusetts equivalent of tax-increment financing — will be set up). Naming rights for Polar Park will come from Worcester’s Polar Beverages. (Note to cocktail lovers: Polar Bitter Sour rocks.) The marketing tie-ins between two companies using polar bears as mascots are too obvious to be ignored, obviously.

The six-acre ballpark would be the centerpiece of an 18-acre, 650,000-square foot mixed-use development. Six acres may seem small, but when there’s no parking involved, it’s about right for a 10,000-capacity facility these days; Target Field sits on eight acres, and the new D.C. United home, Audi Field, sits on less than 10 acres. Small footprints are becoming the norm in modern sporting facilities. The additional development carries a price tag of $150 million or so and includes two hotels, 65,000 square feet of retail space, 200,000 square feet of mixed-use development and 225 market-rate apartments. It would partially open in 2021, along with the ballpark. Also part of the development: stare funding for a $35-million, 500-space parking garage and other infrastructure improvements.

New Worcester ballpark concept

The PawSox will play the next two seasons at their longtime home, McCoy Stadium. The PawSox had been working on a new-ballpark plan in Pawtucket for several years, and this year saw the Rhode Island General Assembly pass a plan calling on the PawSox to make a $45 million contribution to a new downtown Pawtucket ballpark, with the state paying $26 million and the city allocating $18 million. In addition, the team would pay $12 million after approval of the plan. However, the legislation approved by Rhode Island officials left open several uncertainties, as it withdrew state backing of the bonds and instead put it on the back of bondholders, which was likely to result in higher borrowing rates.

The ballpark design team includes Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith, whose resume includes the creation of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, as well as renovations of Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and Ed Smith Stadium, spring home of the Orioles. She’s currently Senior Vice President of Planning and Development for the Dodgers.

This is not a done deal: the Worcester City Council must sign off on a more specific lease based on the term sheet, and a vote is expected by the end of next month. And Rhode Island officials, faced with the prospect of forever losing affiliated baseball, say they want to a chance to up their offer, with Gov. Gina Raimondo calling for another meeting with PawSox officials.

Plus, the plan still needs to be approved by the International League and Minor League Baseball, with Major League Baseball asked if it has any objections.

There is one notable instance of collateral damage here: the Worcester Bravehearts (summer collegiate; Futures Collegiate Baseball League). Owner John Creedon Jr. came into a difficult situation when the independent Can-Am Worcester Tornadoes imploded and established a credible operation at Fitton Field. He and GM Dave Peterson were imaginative with promotions and solid with customer service, making the Bravehearts one of the top teams in summer-collegiate ball. What this means for the Bravehearts remains to be seen, but it will be hard for a summer-collegiate team to complete in the same market with a Red Sox Triple-A team.

Renderings courtesy Pawtucket Red Sox, city of Worcester.

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