September 3, 2018

How nearly 15 years of negotiations landed the PawSox in Worcester

PHOTOS/MATT WRIGHT
McCoy Stadium, Pawtucket

Worcester is about one month away from the City Council approving construction of a $240-million stadium development to bring the Pawtucket Red Sox to the Canal District, but the coup for the city to lure the top minor-league affiliate of the historic baseball franchise from its long-time home has been about 15 years in the making.

After a very public negotiation in the 1990s where Worcester felt like it was used as a pawn, the talks of the team moving to Central Massach morphed into smaller discussions ramping up in fits and starts whenever the team appeared to be questioning its commitment to Pawtucket. Those seeds eventually grew to fruition as Worcester officials used professional and closed-door discussions – and a lot more public money – to sneak through the window created by Rhode Island's hesitancy in approving financing for a new stadium.

"I've lived here my whole life, and I've never seen the community so excited about anything," said Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus.

The two-man discussions

The first link in the thread of officially landing the team in Worcester began shortly before the PawSox agreed to a lease extension in 2005 with Pawtucket. Former Worcester City Councilor Phil Palmieri had brought the idea to the floor of the council chambers of snatching the PawSox from their Rhode Island home. A group from Shrewsbury wanted to take on that challenge, but the team ultimately agreed to extend its stay in Pawtucket through the 2020 season.

Next came 2015, when the team was purchased by new ownership group headed by then-Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino. Palmieri – dubbed "Mr. Baseball" by Mayor Joseph Petty on Aug. 17 when the PawSox announced their intentions to move to Worcester – again raised the issue on the council floor shortly before the team began discussions to move to Providence.

Courtesy | City of Worcester
A rendering of the Worcester Red Sox stadium in Worcester.

At the time, Palmieri cited the blighted Wyman-Gordon site in the Canal District, which eventually will become the team's new home. Behind the scenes, Palmieri was talking to the Jim Skeffington, then president of the PawSox.

From that relationship, Palmieri was introduced to a ballpark consultant for the team who came to Worcester to check out the vacant Wyman-Gordon land.

With the team still in active talks with Rhode Island, those conversations remained with just those two men until Skeffington died of a heart attack in 2015.

Still, Palmieri realized that Worcester actually had a shot.

"I really needed to start talking with some critical players," Palmieri said.

The first man Palmieri reach out to: Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Dinner meetings

In December 2016, Murray and Augustus had dinner with Lucchino and his wife in Boston. The discussion was about a possible ballpark in Worcester, but the team was committed to trying to make it work in Pawtucket through June 2017 after failing to relocate to Providence. Lucchino said exactly that.

Timothy Murray, CEO, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce

If that should fall through, Lucchino said Worcester would get a shot.

Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus

Aside from sending out feelers every now and then, Worcester stayed on the sidelines until July 2016, when a postcard campaign spearheaded by the Canal District Alliance kept Worcester in the back of the team's head.

The City Council in August 2017 then authorized Augustus to do everything in his power to lure the team to Worcester. Those efforts began the same month with a lunch meeting at Canal District eatery Lock 50.

That was the city's first real sales pitch, Augustus said. It included dozens of decision makers on the city's and team's sides.

"Then we started having conversations that just grew with frequency and intensity over a period of time," Augustus said.

Lucchino and team officials began coming to Worcester without telling City Hall to get an unbiased view of Worcester.

"We'd just hear about them going out to dinner somewhere or to a different venue," Augustus said. "It was them wanting to see for themselves if everything we were saying was in fact true."

Winning over the PawSox

Eventually, the team and city began meeting weekly. That grew to two or three times a week. Meetings would typically last at least three hours. Some would last the entire day. Some would take multiple days in a row.

"We even did one set of meetings at the Cape," Augustus said. "We stayed overnight."

Day after day, Worcester was rubbing off on the team, said Dan Rea, the PawSox senior vice president and general manager.

However, the team didn't immediately commit one way or the other, and it was still leaning toward staying in their longtime home.

"We wanted to give Rhode Island and Pawtucket every shot," Rea said. "It's been our home for decades."

It wasn't until the winter and spring months that moving to Worcester became a real viable option for the team, Rea said.

Augustus and Rea couldn't pinpoint one specific meeting where they feel the tide really turned, but Murray cited one late spring meeting at Worcester law firm Bowditch and Dewey where corporate sponsorship was discussed.

"In Rhode Island, they've got some of the best corporate sponsorship in all of Triple-A baseball," Murray said.

Team ownership was concerned that Worcester couldn't match that kind of big business support.

In 10 days, Murray and Augustus were able to draw up a list of potential corporate sponsors in Central Massachusetts to surpass what Rhode Island could offer.

"I dare say his jaw dropped," Murray said of Lucchino.

Certainty, support & money

The ultimate deciding factor, Rea said, was the certainty associated with Worcester's proposal, which he said gave the team the best shot for a 2021 opening day.

Boston developer Madison Downtown Holdings had control of the site and was already signed onto the ballpark project, which calls for a $240-million investment with hotels, apartments and mixed-use retail. The public support in Worcester and Massachusetts was many times more than there was in Pawtucket and Rhode Island, he said.

Worcester represented an opportunity for the team to reach a broader market Northern New England, Rea said, but still retain those core fans in Rhode Island.

Certainly not overlooked is the extravagant financial package offered to Lucchino and company with the team contributing $6 million in upfront money and $30 million in rent payments vs. the $12 million upfront and $33 million in rent payments in Rhode Island.

Still, from July 2 when Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed legislation authorizing a $83-million ballpark at an abandoned department store in Pawtucket, until the hours before the Aug. 17 announcement in Worcester, the team and Pawtucket worked earnestly to find common ground to stay in the city it has called home since 1970.

The rumor mill was in full force out of Rhode Island. Augustus and his team would sometimes fear Pawtucket would pull it off and secure their future with the the PawSox.

PHOTO/MATT WRIGHT
The Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox have called McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket home since 1970.

"It was a rollercoaster," Augustus said. Still, "I knew we were in a better spot than Rhode Island."

Pawtucket didn't have control of the Apex Cos. site or a developer lined up. Worcester had both.

$38M vs. $101M

The package Worcester offered to the team was never anything Rhode Island or Pawtucket would come close to, said Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien.

The offer to keep the team in Pawtucket, however, was unprecedented for Rhode Island, Grebien said. The $38 million of combined city and state funds would cover a significant chunk of the $83-million ballpark. The team would foot the remaining $45 million.

The team met with Grebien along with state and city officials weekly since July 2, but not much changed in the deal. Grebien said the city was willing to help offset some electricity costs, but that was about it.

In Worcester, the city was willing to borrow $101 million to pay for the stadium development, including $30 million which the team would pay back through annual lease payments.

"We were never going to extend ourselves just to keep the ballpark here," Grebien said.

The ballpark and top minor league affiliate of one of the most storied franchises in American sports history was important to the fabric of Pawtucket and the future economic development of the city, but more important for Grebien was protecting the city and state's taxpayers.

"Worcester was willing to expose themselves to a much higher degree than we ever could or would here," Grebien said.

Despite the dollar discrepancy in public funding between Worcester and Rhode Island, Rea said the team might have stayed in Pawtucket had the Rhode Island legislature approved earlier legislation backstopped by the taxpayers, a bill blocked by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

Because of the nature of the legislature's dealings, the team faced vocal opposition during public hearings in the Ocean State against putting up so much money for an organization run by wealthy businessmen.

Those testifying in the public hearings cited 38 Studios, the failed video game company from Red Sox legend Curt Schilling, which went bankrupt after defaulting on a $75-million state loan.

"People were skeptical because of that saga," Grebien said.

Another factor playing against Pawtucket was the extra scrutiny put on the team's value to Rhode Island after the PawSox failed to get approval over a stadium deal to move to Providence in 2015. That three-year scrutiny included studies, public input and hours of meetings, and it all opened the window for Worcester to engage with the team.

"Clearly, Worcester was able to steal them from us," Grebien sid. "It was very transparent here, but they kept everything closed."

Behind closed doors

Closed, it was. Very few details of the Worcester negotiations were leaked out. That was by design, Augustus and Murray said, to avoid the divisiveness created in Rhode Island over the team.

"That probably did help," Augustus said.

According to Rea, about 20 other New England cities and towns were pitching the club on relocating to their cities. To avoid spilling the beans to the competition, Augustus and Murray structured the deal so it wouldn't need to be made public until negotiations were complete

Both Worcester and the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate hope to grow upon the crowds that came out to Pawtucket for minor league baseball.

The tight lips of City Hall officials and business leaders was the product of Augustus attempting to build a relationship with Lucchino and the team. To make a potential 30-year relationship work, there needed to be trust.

"I needed to make sure that if we get into a 30-year relationship with the PawSox, they were able to trust the person and entity they were getting into a relationship with," he said. "For the time being, that person is me."

Augustus was charged with doing everything in his power to get the deal done. He bypassed any legislative approval by utilizing state resources including the Housing Development Incentive Program to pitch in $35 million for the apartment component of the development and MassWorks funding for a proposed Canal District parking garage.

So, instead of a public discussion like Rhode Island with people of varying interests debating the good, the bad and the ugly about the PawSox and its owners, Augustus and Lucchino were able to unveil a take-it-or-leave-it proposal in euphoric public announcement full of congratulations and cheers.

The City Council does have the ability to alter the deal, but the team would need to sign off on any changes. In their Aug. 21 meeting, the council members said they would perform their due diligence but expressed broad support for WooSox and its stadium.

"People are just generally excited for this," Augustus said.

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