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The Collapse of the Pawtucket Ballpark Deal

Pawtucket ballpark site plan

If the Pawtucket Red Sox (Class AAA; International League) execute a planned move to Worcester, MA, it will come after long and tumultuous negotiations to remain in Pawtucket. 

The years-long search to replace McCoy Stadium is leading the team to Worcester, where plans are taking shape for a Kelly Square ballpark. The six-acre ballpark, tentatively named Polar Park, would open for the 2021 season and serve as the centerpiece of an 18-acre, 650,000-square foot mixed-use development.

That agreement is still pending final approval, but if it moves forward, it will lead to the PawSox moving from Pawtucket after the 2020 season. Prior to announcing the agreement with Worcester in August, the PawSox worked with Rhode Island and Pawtucket officials on a proposed new ballpark at the site of an Apex department store in the city’s downtown (a preliminary design is shown above). State officials debated the plan during the most recent legislative session, and the process appeared to have momentum after the senate approved a ballpark financing bill in January. However, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello opposed that deal, claiming that it lacked public support because it put too heavy of a burden on the state.

A revised deal was released months later, and eventually approved by the House and Senate before being signed by Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo. Despite that process, the bill had some issues. It called 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 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.

Meanwhile, the PawSox had been in discussions with Worcester over a new ballpark. There was plenty of sentiment for remaining in Rhode Island–despite Worcester offering the team a more financially favorable proposal–but certain issues presented themselves. Skepticism in Rhode Island was running high, especially in the wake of the state’s botched deal with Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios and lingering bad feelings over failed 2015 negotiations for a new Providence ballpark. Those factors, along with a more financially uncertain bill in Pawtucket, a lack of cohesion among Rhode Island leaders, difficulties in negotiations between the team and government officials, and a more welcoming reception in Worcester contributed to the PawSox’s decision to pursue a move to Massachusetts. In a deep, thorough look at the process, the Providence Journal’s Mark Patinkin found that PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino and the club’s owners considered remaining in Rhode Island, but believed there was too much uncertainty surrounding the proposal:

There were worries, too, about acquiring the Apex site, mentioned as a major issue in a team letter to Grebien — but several principals said if the Senate version had passed, that would not have stopped them.

And there was one final issue — they’d come to feel various political leaders here were not reliable partners.

“There was terrible uncertainty,” said Lucchino, “that government could change things again.”

They’d never even been able to get the governor, speaker, Senate president and mayor of Pawtucket to sit down together.

Keep in mind that the agreement in Worcester still has to clear some hurdles before it is finalized. A city council committee backed the project last week, but it still needs to be considered by the full Worcester City Council. The city council is expected to discuss the proposal on Wednesday. Additionally, 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.

Should it go through, however, it will mark the end of a decades-long tradition of the PawSox at McCoy Stadium. It appeared for a time that the PawSox, Pawtucket, and Rhode Island officials could come to an agreement for a new Pawtucket ballpark, but the plan ultimately encountered more uncertainties over time and the team is now closer to leaving for Worcester.

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