While I truly hope the Pawtucket Red Sox will continue for years to come, as a state senator who has to vote on a publicly backed stadium, I have a responsibility to protect the public interest. The proposal, while improved, falls short of being a good taxpayer deal.
The $71 million cost, expected from revenue or moral obligation bonds, would be paid off over 30 years by three parties. The state would pay $23 million, the city of Pawtucket $15 million and the team owners $33 million, in addition to a one-time equity contribution of $12 million.
Rhode Island would shoulder the lion’s share of the risk. Proponents argue there is no legal requirement to repay moral obligation bonds, we’ve learned through experience that public agencies are too big to fail. The state would serve as the backstop should the others fail to meet their obligations. Given declining attendance, this could be a realistic prospect. Even in the medium term, it is difficult to predict if the team will continue to have sufficient operating income to support its share of the projected debt service.
Some say Pawtucket would gain in economic development. The city predicts that this revenue would derive from taxes from the stadium and business development. However, research on publicly-backed stadiums says that new sports facilities have a small impact on economic activity. Reputable economists have concluded that public return on investment in sports facilities is minimal.
The city could be in serious financial trouble should it not realize these revenues. To insure its debt payments, Pawtucket has pledged its state-based financial aid (minus money for education). I worry that this is an imprudent gamble. I also do not believe the state would sit idly by while the people of Pawtucket suffer. The state likely would assume the city’s share of the debt payments.
Another unknown is the cost of the old Apex property. Proponents have proposed a very troubling change to the eminent domain law. Currently, a property must be deemed “substandard” or “blighted” in order for a redevelopment agency to seize it. However, since the old Apex property is neither blighted nor substandard, the change to the law is designed to permit the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to seize the land to push the PawSox stadium forward if the asking price rise too high. This would open a Pandora’s Box for the unjust taking of people’s homes or businesses.
Lastly, monies raised through bonds and used for business people translates into money that could be used for economic incentives that would yield better paying jobs. While jobs would be generated by building of a stadium, many of the better-paying jobs would be in construction and short-lived. Ballpark jobs are seasonal and often low-paying. Even Minor League baseball players are among the worst paid athletes. Their pay is so low that a bill was introduced in Congress, ostensibly at the behest of team owners, to say minor league players are not entitled to either minimum wage or overtime pay, even though most are working 60 to 70 hours a week!
Unless substantive changes are made to the current legislation, I will be voting against it.
The author, James Sheehan of North Kingstown, is a state senator representing both North Kingstown and Narragansett.