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January 15, 2021

Worcester board approves Polar Park lease

Photo | Grant Welker Polar Park under construction on Madison Street in Worcester

The Worcester Red Sox's lease with the city to play for up to 35 years in Polar Park was approved Friday by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority.

The long-anticipated lease agreement commits the WooSox to play at Polar Park for at least 25 years, starting as soon as April. The team is also picking up the entirety of a $17-million cost overrun announced last week, an increase that brings the project's total cost to roughly $157 million.

The authority, a city body that is the technical owner of the ballpark site and gives direct oversight to the project, approved the lease unanimously.

Authority members, like their City Council colleagues, have dismissed concerns about the ballpark's costs or likelihood of being financially prudent for Worcester.

"It's mind-blowing that the conversation starts with, 'We're spending $150 million of city money to build a ballpark when we have all these other problems,'" chairman Vincent Pedone said.  "It's almost wanton ignorance."

A final key vote is expected as soon as Jan. 26 from the Worcester City Council that would approve $14 million in borrowing for the latest overruns. The team will repay those costs as part of its annual lease, according to the city.

Friday's authority meeting revolved around discussions about the project's rising costs — it was initially $101 million, rising by $30 million a year ago, just before the pandemic — and when the 9,508-capacity stadium could be completed. The start of the baseball season is unknown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which also briefly halted construction last spring.

Initial cost estimates weren't accurate because of some complications with the site, including a topographic slope on the site, a water culvert that runs under the property, and soil conditions, said Peter Dunn, the city's chief development officer. Each of those factors were identified as potential issues at the outset of the agreement to bring the team to Worcester.

"It's a very unique site," Dunn said. "That kind of affected why we're so far beyond what the initial estimate kind of looked like."

Estimates that came in higher than expected caused planners to redesign some aspects of the ballpark, Dunn said. Renderings that have been shared publicly reflect the ballpark's final look, including features like a children's play area and a rooftop garden, he said.

The approved lease is similar to what was described in a letter of intent in 2018, but with some changes, including the length being extended in time by five years to 35 years. A city guarantee to cover any shortfalls in corporate revenue has been reduced in the project's first years, and a penalty for not completing the ballpark on time has been reduced.

The ballpark should be substantially completed by April, according to Dunn and his predecessor, Mike Traynor, who also briefed the authority.

"If the season gets delayed a month, that gives us more breathing room," Traynor said.

City officials, including CFO Timothy McGourthy, gave reassurance Friday about new tax revenue that's been expected to offset the city's costs of building Polar Park.

A planned mixed-use development adjacent to the ballpark was due to open its first phase early this year, but has yet to start construction. Two other developments are on the horizon inside a special taxing district within a few blocks of the ballpark, including one where Table Talk Pies today has a production site and where the former Cove Music Hall stands a few blocks away on Green Street. Those two projects could start work as soon as next year.

New revenue from those projects are expected to pay back a bulk of the city's costs, city officials have said, a point that goes against sports economics consensus.

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