Op-Ed: Representative Deborah Ruggiero – Play ball! But where?

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Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown)

I love it when my constituents provide input on issues. The PawSox stadium has brought many emails and calls from both sides of the bench. Many have argued about the economic importance of the PawSox to our state. I’ve sat through many, many hours of testimony in the House Finance Committee and asked many questions. Now that the bill has been sent to the House, my committee will have more hearings, during which I’m confident we can continue to improve the proposal and make it a better deal for taxpayers.

My first question was “Can Pawtucket afford this?” If they default, the taxpayers of the state are the backstop. Their fiscal analysis shows they can support the $18 million in bonds to pay back. Also, part of the deal includes PawSox developing 50,000 square feet for retail in Pawtucket, so the city will see tax incremental funding as well.

I would like to see the PawSox backstop the city of Pawtucket in the event that they default. The Pawsox could put $18 million in escrow, as security, in the event that the city of Pawtucket defaults on its notes. Each year that the city of Pawtucket meets its financial obligations (without taxpayer help), that portion of the security deposit is returned. Make sense? The owners are multimillionaires, and they can afford to have more skin in the game. Besides, staying in Pawtucket benefits them, because it would cost them significantly, probably millions, to rebrand themselves in New England as the WorSox (home team to Worcester, Mass.)

I don’t know if people realize that the $45 million that the PawSox are putting in for this deal (including buying the land) is 54 percent — the most of any Triple A deal in the country; most Triple A teams have put in 25-30 percent of the public/private partnership.

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Then I asked, “Would the debt service be too much for the state?” Rhode Island currently gets about $2.1 million in revenues from McCoy today (with 400,000 attendees in 2016, and that’s the lowest since 1992!) The state’s debt service under the new deal is $1.6 million a year– well below the annual income that the state already yields.

This is NOT 38 Studios. Curt Schilling was an amateur businessman with an unreleased video game who was over his skis compared with a Triple A team with over 40 years of history in the state. It is public/private money for a public use with public benefits. And to ensure 38 Studios never happened again, the legislature passed a statute limiting any state funds to no more than $25 million. Someone once said, “There’s a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror.”

Finally, looking to the future, I wondered if the state were to not authorize this public/private partnership with PawSox and the city of Pawtucket, would Pawtucket suffer extensive blight and an economic downturn in 4 or 5 years? Pawtucket has already lost Memorial Hospital and the Gamm Theatre, and Hasbro is considering a move. On the other side, there are some pretty cool local breweries in Pawtucket attracting a young, professional clientele.

When you come into Rhode Island from Boston, the gateway to our state is Pawtucket and that old Apex building! Would Rhode Islanders regret and become resentful if the PawSox became the WorSox? Has Brooklyn ever gotten over losing the Dodgers?

The House Finance Committee will work to make the Senate bill a better bill for Rhode Island taxpayers. I suspect there will be more change-ups in this saga, but the first pitch will be thrown in 2020. The question is where?

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, the chairwoman of House Committee on Small Business, serves on House Finance and represents Jamestown and Middletown in District 74. She can be reached at rep-ruggiero@rilegislature.gov or 423-0444. 

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