Bishop: The Ironic Fascination With Riverfront Stadiums

Thursday, October 26, 2017


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From the first to bear the moniker in Cincinnatti and the contemporaneous concrete doughnut of Three Rivers in Pittsburg – both of which were imploded early this century, whatever that says about the staying power of riverfront stadiums  -- through the Providence proposal for a riverfront stadium to Pawtucket’s gambit for a Ballpark at Slater Mill, the river stadium meme is alive. Whether it is well is another question indeed.

Many have properly focused on the question of whether the state should put money into such a proposition, but few have really turned a skeptical eye on this newest flashy proposal itself. If the Pawsox were going to pay for it themselves, they can build it wherever they want, with one exception, they would have to acquire the land. This is an unspoken part of the ‘public-private partnership’, read corporatist excess, posed when Pawtucket gets in bed with baseball billionaires.

Kelo comes to Pawtucket?

It is absolutely true that the owner of the Apex site, the current ‘riverfront’ focus, wants to sell the site, but does he want to sell for a price that this consortium will pay? Some people, who ought to know better, presume that if he has marketed the property he is a willing seller, so we should not be skeptical of the threat of eminent domain which would simply be a pretextual undertaking to get some court to decide what the property is worth. But one is only a “willing seller” if one gets a purchase price they are willing to accept.

Yes, commercial owners of the Apex site and its distinctively referential pyramid roofed one-time retail outlet are not as sympathetic as Suzette Kelo and her little pink house. But they no less deserve protection against corporate capture of the public power of eminent domain.

For Pawtucket it has nothing to do with the river, but which river

It is not inconceivable that some agreement might be negotiated short of eminent domain, but the complications of gaining consensus for public contributions have made the proponents of the project put the cart before the horse, drawing elaborate renderings of a stadium on land they do not own. Pawtucket, for its part, went from decrying reports about the inadequacy of McCoy stadium, when the proposed stadium location was the Providence River, to touting a move to an expensive new venue as penultimately logical when it is on the Blackstone River.

And what is to be made of the vaunted riverfront character of this park? Nothing! As with the archetypes in Cincinnatti and Pittsburgh, the river plays no part whatsoever in the park’s use for baseball, or purportedly as a public park the rest of the time. The stadium faces away from the river, not towards it, offering a relation to its setting akin to the kind of relationship with the great outdoors one gets when gambling at Foxwoods. And what is seen from the river and across the river in downtown is the imposing façade of the backside of bleachers.

On the site plan, a good deal of the ancillary development is drawn overlooking the river just south of the highway (the stadium itself is just north meaning that the sense of connection is severed by the highway, as Route 10 severs Olneyville, to sharpen an old saw).  The majority of this adjacent development is parking lots running down to the river. This is hardly visionary use of space that purports to take advantage of the aesthetic of this river.

Rhode Islanders are familiar with rivers that have old mills clustered around them and very little public connection to what were, in their industrial history, open sewers. To use public policy to drive riverfront development that completely ignores the river ought to be the most obvious wrongheaded bit of this proposal to come along.

Preeminent Alternatives, not eminent domain

The easiest and most morally consonant way to catalyze cost effective negotiations for the Apex site is to look just as seriously at other sites in Pawtucket and its immediate environs that might be equally compelling while affording the retention of downtown waterfront for more river centric uses. It is a mystery that there isn’t a serious push to consider collocating the slowly percolating train station and stadium. It is about a 15 minute walk from the proposed train station to the proposed ballpark at Slater Mill, hardly the kind of proximity that motivates a game train for minor league play in southeastern New England. But it could be a 15 second walk which at least makes it mildly plausible a few folks would take the train.

Highway visibility would be diminished at that site although it is high ground where notable features of the stadium could still be seen from the highway approaches to Pawtucket. Design comes to mind here recalling the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield which is adjacent to the highway but it is easy to imagine a baseball version of their signature spire that would call attention to a stadium less than quarter mile away.

Or, proceeding up the river there are sites on either side around the Central Falls line that are underutilized enough that even separate owners might cooperate on offering a site as happened late in the Prosox saga when the Victory Plating alternative emerged – of course hampered by the fact that it needed similar subsidy. 

Perhaps serendipitously, proceeding north one comes to a recently cleared site on the East Bank that almost duplicates the attributes of the Apex site but with more space. It is located on the Attleboro/Pawtucket line and could offer a Ballpark at Chocolate Mill that is visible and accessible from the highway; fronts the river without such overbearing layout; offers more space for parking and development on the stadium site; and still provides direct access to the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, summertime home of Salsa, as a gateway to both Central Falls and Downtown Pawtucket.

My way or the highway?

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Perhaps most overlooked is McCoy itself which is actually at the heart of another potential redevelopment area in Pawtucket and could be much better connected to the transportation grid. Unease about what will happen with the neighboring Memorial Hospital actually emphasizes the potential connection of McCoy and its district with riverfront redevelopment in both Pawtucket and East Providence along a corridor bordering the hospital. Back when Pawtucket liked McCoy, I proposed just such a plan.

And regardless of where in greater Pawtucket one would look to put the stadium, improvements to Route 114 are potentially merited as southcoast Massachusetts is a significant market not only for the Pawsox but for the amenity driven 365 day a year development contemplated around a stadium. Most folks know that reaching Pawtucket from this region during evening commuting hours can mean stop and go on 195 from Pawtucket Avenue ( Rte. 114 ) all the way into Providence and then on 95 north all the way to Pawtucket.

A dedicated exit from 195 West to 114 and a multilane format on 114 that allows the center lane to be reversed for inbound and outbound game or event traffic while limiting left hand turns at those times could make a viable alternative to the congested highway. It is this kind of expensive but useful infrastructure that the state should consider, and why it should not be contributing to the stadium itself. 

Parking is not planned

And access to the stadium doesn’t even begin to contemplate what parking will be needed – which is not addressed by the current stadium plan. Some think there is nothing happening in Pawtucket anyway so folks can just park downtown. Such ideas of disseminate street and municipal lot parking can seem plausible to those who know Pawtucket, but less so to those who don’t. More importantly, what happens if Pawtucket becomes the kind of place where things happen instead of where they don’t happen? That’s the whole point of this proposal. Is everything else in Pawtucket going to shut down so the parking can be saved for the Pawsox or is structured parking in the future of any proposal? Who pays for that?

Demonstrating what the state can do to make a park and parking that are highly accessible to wider markets is what ought to allow businessmen to raise their own capital and build their own stadiums. It is a more parochial decision what Pawtucket brings to the table, although it’s bad enough to give up all property taxes on these enterprises, which is of course presumed, without the city actually contributing. Purportedly the city could recoup its ‘investment’ by getting property taxes from ancillary development. But if the history of Providence’s I-195 district is any lesson, Pawtucket would have to give up taxes on any significant new development despite planning to pay for this current largess with those future taxes. How long ago was it that state officials were touting how development on the I-195 land would finally bolster Providence’s tax base.  Instead, they have taken the city’s power to decide on incentives and given it to the Commerce Corporation that gives the stuff out like candy.

The Nonsense of Revenue Neutral 

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This is just one more way in which the talk about this being revenue neutral is so much poppycock. People say if there is no Pawsox Stadium we would just loose the sales and income tax anyway, but that ignores the economic reality that if people don’t spend money on the Pawsox, they will spend it on other things which would provide tax revenue. Some of that might not be spent in Rhode Island, so it isn’t dollar for dollar parity, but we’re talking about giving away all the tax revenue from the Pawsox to billionaires anyway.  There is zero tax advantage for Rhode Island or the city in the offing.

If we had a revenue neutral relationship with all businesses there would, indeed, be zero in the treasury. That would suit me fine, but hardly seems to be the stuff of our high spending legislature. After all, Walmarts is a great place: low prices everyday and they employ lots of folks and the parking lot is always full. Why wouldn’t we rebate all their taxes and say its revenue neutral, and we’re getting a covered public park in the bargain, a place where people can stroll when it rains looking at nice stuff . . .  ?

Tragedy or Comedy?

That is only tragic because its essentially true. As if to add comedy to this tragedy, the City Council in Cranston put forward the idea of a stadium out off Phenix Avenue the other day. I guess the folks thinking that have never been to Dodd Stadium in Connecticut, where you journey to the absolute middle of nowhere to watch a minor minor league game -- makes the Middle of Nowhere Diner look downright cosmopolitan. It’s a pleasant enough environment once you finally get there, but hardly the integrated and accessible development environment of a modern stadium. Maybe lurking beneath the Cranston proposal would be an effort to create some analog to Patriot Place; or perhaps they think they could squeeze something across Route 2 from Chapel View.

It’s a free country. Cranston can suggest what it wants. But of course its not really a free country when it comes to stadiums. They, like Pawtucket, would expect to dragoon taxpayers into paying for this. Their barely noticed Council resolution beseeching the Commerce Corporation to intervene on their behalf does not imply whatsoever that Cranston would be a cheaper place to build and somehow obviate the ‘need’ for the state and city being put over the barrel to the tune of some $40 million plus unspecified infrastructure. How about a proposal for stadium construction that doesn’t mandate union labor. That might obviate the need for the state’s share right there.

For historic and market reasons Pawtucket retains an inside track but it shouldn’t be squandered on one location or premised on taxpayer support, but promoted based on a commitment to infrastructure exquisitely suitable to a stadium but serving the public at large as well. Charlie Baker is not ready to pony up state money for Worcester or Springfield; and Pawtucket remains a great stadium location at the confluence of many markets. That advantage should be pressed rather than pressing the taxpayer for their hard earned money.

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 


Related Slideshow: 7 Questions the PawSox Need to Answer in Hearings

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Who is responsible for the environmental clean-up costs?

As GoLocal exclusively reported in May, the owners of the Apex site in Pawtucket and the previous owners are battling in Superior Court over indemnification provisions from more than $6.4 million in environmental clean-up costs tied to the land being eyed for the new PawSox Stadium.

The two parties include Andrew Gates of Apex Development Company who purchased the property for $24 million and a number of members of the prominent Fain family, who previously had ownership interest in the property.

Gates’ entity purchased the property in December of 1998 according to city tax records and the property is now assessed at just under $4.3 million — a drop of nearly $20 million in value.

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Who is on the hook for the public subsidy (and the entire Stadium cost)?

Critical to the proposal gaining approval by legislators and building public support is that financing costs are not backstopped by taxpayers. Presently, that is in question. 

Seth Magaziner, RI's General Treasurer, has raised the red flag about the proposed legislation, “The debt study that we did, no surprise, the liabilities of the City of Pawtucket are pretty high. That being said, the legislation as introduced does suggest that there’s a state backstop.”

He made the comments in an interview with WPRI.

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Why should a group of billionaires receive a public subsidy for their sports team?

The owners of the PawSox have a combined personal wealth that makes them among the most wealthy ownership groups in all of professional sports.


Their fortunes are linked to CVS, Providence Equity, Fleet Bank, TJX, and the Boston Red Sox. Unlike the previous owner, the late Ben Mondor, this group has refused to meet the public or speak to the media.

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Can Pawtucket support the debt obligation?

While bond rating agency Moody's ranks Pawtucket's future outlook as stable. Moody's flags factors:

Credit Challenges:

Large unfunded pension liability

High fixed costs (combined pension, OPEB costs and debt service)

Low wealth and income indicators

Increasing debt

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They Have Political Support - Will Raimondo Flip Again?

Proponents, including the ownership group, must feel that Rhode Island is moving quicksand. Governor Gina Raimondo supported the Providence stadium plan until she didn't. 

She supported the initial financing structure for the Pawtucket location, negotiated by her Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, then flipped on that proposal and announced her opposition.

Now, she is supportive of the pending stadium deal. Is she willing to bet her re-election on it?

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38 Studios, St. Joseph Pension Fund Bankruptcy, and Wrong Track RI

There may only be one Rhode Islander who loves RI's inability to properly review critical financial deals -- Attorney Max Wistow who sued to recover 38 Studios assets and now has been engaged to investigate the largest pension fund (St. Joseph Health Services) collapse -- just three years after the RI Attorney General Peter Kilmartin gave the sale of St. Joseph's assets the green light.

The 38 Studios deal under minded confidence and now the recent failure of St. Joseph's bankruptcy has only fueled the concern that RI cannot properly review financial deals.

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Opposition - can they be mollified?

From Libertarians to Republicans to Progressive Democrats -- there is a sweeping array of opponents to the proposed public subsidy. See VIDEO


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