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January 13, 2021

Worcester councilors support new borrowing for Polar Park overruns

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

Worcester City Councilors maintained strong support for the city-built Polar Park baseball stadium Tuesday night days after the project's latest total cost of $157 million was made public.

Councilors on Tuesday touted both tangible and intangible benefits from the ballpark: new property tax revenue Polar Park will bring in, making up for the city's costs for building it through new proposed developments on surrounding parcels, as well as the pride and buzz the project has brought to Worcester.

Councilor Gary Rosen dismissed criticism of the project, which has included questions about the project's rising costs.

"Thank God that we didn't listen to those folks," he said. "I feel bad for the naysayers."

City councilors voted unanimously to begin moving ahead on a $14-million bond that reflects most of a newly announced $17-million cost overruns that reflects new costs incurred over the past year. That followed $30 million in overruns announced a year ago. All told, the ballpark project is costing roughly $157 million, up substantially from an initial $101 million price tag.

The Worcester Red Sox are paying $7 million up-front of the new overruns, and will repay the city for its borrowing to cover the remaining costs. City Manager Edward Augustus said the city agreed to borrow most of the new costs as part of "an opportunity to help partners," referring to the team. A proposed lease between the city and the team, which could be approved as soon as Friday by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, includes new terms that the city describes as concessions they've secured, including extending the lease period to 35 years from 30, and reducing potential penalties to the city if the ballpark isn't completed on time.

The new borrowing is not expected to negatively affect the city's credit ratings, Augustus said.

Augustus also defended the project's rising costs.

"None of us knew there would be a global pandemic that would hit in the middle of this project," he said.

The city's own accounting shows that a great bulk of the overruns are not directly attributable to the pandemic, and most took place before the pandemic started. The city has estimated $1.6 million in costs directly related to the pandemic, in addition to what it says are harder-to-measure costs, as well as personal protective equipment needed for workers.

Aside from procedural questions, officials lauded what they call the project's significant benefits to the city.

"It's going to reflect, I think, where the new Worcester is," Augustus said. Other proposed projects demonstrate how Polar Park has spurred new investment that he said would never have taken place otherwise.

"How would we have transformed 16 acres in one fell swoop?" he asked.

Two residents who spoke were less enthusiastic. One, Sue Mailman, the president and owner of Coghlin Electrical Contractors, urged city officials to give more transparency around the project's costs. Another, Nicole Apostola, was more critical about the ballpark's rising prices and costs to the public specifically.

"When will any of you say enough is enough to this project?" she said.

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