September 12, 2018

Worcester approves $101M financing for PawSox ballpark

Worcester city councilors approved borrowing $101 million for a new ballpark to attract the Pawtucket Red Sox. The stadium would open for the 2021 season, but several steps remain before construction can start.

The first set of local approvals needed to build the new home of the Pawtucket Red Sox in Worcester is complete. Now, city officials, the team and a private developer must get moving.

City councilors on Wednesday approved the borrowing of nearly $101 million to pay for the design, construction and land acquisition costs for the new home of the Red Sox in the Canal District and a host of other ordinances intended to expedite the project, which must be completed in time for the 2021 baseball season.

"This is really about a proud moment for our city, a historic moment for our city," City Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson said, before giving the council a pat on the back for pushing for the ballpark plan in the first place last year. "We should really take a bow here."

Madison Downtown Holdings, the Boston-based developer proposing to build hotels, retail and apartments on the abutting Wyman-Gordon parcel, was also approved for tax increment financing deals and the waiver of the first $2 million in permitting fees for the project.

The 11-member council took a single vote to move the proposal together on several fronts, with only Councilor Konstantina Lukes opposed (Councilor Matthew Wally abstained). Lukes questioned whether the project will pay for itself and said the project was rushed through without enough time to answer questions.

"The point is, it comes back to haunt the taxpayer," Lukes said of any shortfall in projected revenue. "We say, well, there's risk for everything. But this is a significant risk."

Other councilors, however, were steadfast in their support for the project, which they said will transform the city's reputation and bring new, denser development to an area of the city's that remains mostly under-developed or vacant because of contamination issues.

Photo/Grant Welker
The ballpark site today, looking west from what would be the stadium's right field.

"My support is a resounding yes," Councilor Gary Rosen said, adding he considers surrounding development that's expected to accompany the stadium critical to how it'll help the city not only break even on its investment but reap new revenue, according to city projections.

"You can't beat that," Rosen said. "The stadium will pay for itself."

Rosen alluded to Worcester's proposal to the team, which far exceeds what the team would have received had it chosen to remain in Pawtucket.

"They couldn't match our deal," he said of Rhode Island. "Of course they couldn't match our deal."

Councilor Kathleen Toomey, showing some of the emotion that's stuck with many city officials in recent weeks, called the deal "a dream that's come true."

Others acknowledged the financial risk the city will take with the project, but called it a worthwhile one.

"If you don't take risks, you just don't get ahead," Mayor Joseph Petty said.

The vote was followed by a round of applause in City Hall. The audience also applauded PawSox executives in the crowd once they were acknowledged by Petty.

The city didn't wait for Wednesday's vote to plan a celebration for the project. Just moments after the vote, Petty announced that an event is scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m. at the Worcester Common oval and is expected to include Boston Red Sox legends and PawSox players. The Canal District Alliance will hold an event from 6 to 10 p.m. with food, games and entertainment and a fireworks display at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday's vote came after the council's standing committee of economic development held two public hearings on the project. The committee voted at its second meeting on Sept. 5 to recommend approval of the package to the full council.

Input from those meetings included requests for a community benefits agreement to ensure the character of the neighborhood is maintained and local workers and vendors are given first priority.

Now, the project must move quickly. Included in an agreement signed with the team, an owner's project manager must be chosen by Oct. 10. The city is due to issue bonds next month. Permitting, land acquisitions and other necessary steps must be done in time for construction to begin by July 1 next year.

The stadium is expected to anchor a mixed-use development that would cover the city's investment through additional tax revenue. The total project, including the ballpark, would cost $204 million.

Remaining steps before the stadium can be built include designing the ballpark itself, environmental clean-up of the site and purchase negotiations with those owning property where the stadium would be built, which includes several existing businesses.

The city plans to acquire the proposed ballpark parcel on mostly vacant land in the Canal District. A lease agreement between the city and team must be negotiated by Dec. 1.

Also approved Wednesday was the creation of a new position for a special project coordinator to work out of City Hall. The new position will oversee the project.

City Manager Edward Augustus and the team signed two separate letters of intent with the team and Madison on Aug. 17 after a year of negotiations to set the project in motion. In total, the public-private project is estimated to cost about $240 million, including the ballpark.

Of the $101 million being borrowed by the city, the team will pick up $36 million in a combination of up-front cash and rent over a 30-year lease.

The ballpark itself is estimated to cost between $86 million and $90 million.


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