September 3, 2018
Editorial

The long game with the WooSox

There is a famous final scene in the movie "The Candidate" in which the long-shot political campaign of the lead character – played by Robert Redford – upon finding out he won the election, asks his campaign manager, "What do we do now?"

Worcester's own campaign to wrest the Boston Red Sox AAA affiliate out from its 48-year home in Rhode Island has been a surprise success, and reason for a real victory party in New England's second largest city. The recruitment of the team was a focused, coordinated effort by the city, its citizens and the state – and unlike the movie, there is a what's-next plan in place. Pawtucket had the incumbent's advantage, but neither the political will or financial backing. The Worcester proposal for a $90-million stadium in a larger $240-million hotel-and-apartment development was simply too good for the team to turn down.

The financial details, from the city's perspective, appear less successful. The city is borrowing $101 million, with the WooSox's rent payment covering about 30 percent and the city planning on using the taxes and fees generated by the hotels and apartments – developments which are also receiving tax breaks – to cover the rest. While the city is confident those taxes and fees will cover its annual $3-million payment, if they don't, it has to cover the rest out of its $632-million yearly budget.

But even if the worst-case scenario comes trues and the city has to take, say, $40 million away from its police, fire or snow removal budget to cover the stadium payments over 30 years, you still have to look at everything the city is getting in return: the top minor league affiliate of perhaps the most well-known brand in New England; private Boston developer Madison Downtown Holdings investing in a hotel, apartment and mixed-use complex on the blighted Wyman-Gordon property; $35 million in state investment in infrastructure and a parking garage; and another state investment in the overhaul of the Kelley Square traffic quagmire.

The city must be careful to make the stadium a catalyst for further Canal District investment and ensure the massive, multi-year construction project doesn't weaken the momentum of the area. The stadium and its surrounding buildings need to be designed in a way to seamlessly fit in to the neighborhoods. Knitting in a large new development with small-scale urban space requires real expertise. The management of that process and public side contribution are critical. The most active spaces in the city are thriving because they have benefited from organic growth – and not because a mega project was beamed in from on high. Getting the connecting fabric right is a big deal.

Ask a businessperson for a three-year plan for their company, and they might have one sitting on the shelf. But ask the for a 30-year plan, and they'll likely laugh out loud. Who knows things that far in the future? Likewise, projecting the financing model for the stadium over 30 years is a guessing game. Will baseball remain sufficiently popular? Will the Red Sox have the same magic to their brand? Who will run the team after Larry Lucchino retires? Will ownership have a sustained stake in Worcester like long-time Pawsox owner Ben Mondor had in Pawtucket? Only time can reveal the answers to the long game, but – today – it is vital the city and its partners remain focused and get the details just right.

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