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Editor’s Note: This story was also written by Robert Paquin III.
The storied history of the much-beloved Pawtucket Red Sox, affectionately called the PawSox by locals, has led many Rhode Islanders to support a recent proposal by the team’s new ownership group to build a new stadium in Providence, the state’s capital. But despite the economic advantages of having the PawSox stay in the Ocean State, publicly funded stadiums have traditionally been a poor investment for taxpayers and a boon to wealthy team owners.
Following a dismal 1976 season for the Pawtucket Red Sox, few thought the team would stay in Rhode Island. The franchise was essentially bankrupt, stadium attendance was virtually non-existent, and no one expected the struggling team to ever capture the attention of the fans in the region again.
The once popular Red Sox was on its way out for good until an unlikely hero emerged in new owner Ben Mondor, a Canadian immigrant whose first impression of the team’s 1940s-era McCoy Stadium was famously, “What a dump.”
Mondor stuck beside the team as it struggled with its attendance through the 1980s, but in 1998 everything changed. McCoy Stadium underwent serious and much-needed renovations, and Rhode Islanders responded by filling the stadium unlike anything the team had ever experienced in its history. Throughout the early to mid 2000s, the team routinely finished toward the top of the league in attendance and broke its own attendance record three separate times, spurred on by the exploding popularity of Pawtucket’s Major League Baseball affiliate, the Boston Red Sox.
The PawSox’ historic ties with Rhode Island and the success of the big-league Red Sox make a new stadium for the PawSox a viable financial investment. By their own estimates, the PawSox say a new stadium in Providence would generate more than $12 million annually in economic activity, much of that going directly to the team. So why then are the multimillionaire owners asking Rhode Islanders to pay more than $4 million per year for 30 years to prevent the team from leaving?
The PawSox owners, as owners often do in these situations, say the deal is more than fair. They project paying the state back between $2 million and $3 million in taxes each year, and they say the new ballpark will infuse the region with desperately needed economic development.
Not everyone agrees.
Victor Matheson, an economist from the College of the Holy Cross, estimates the 100 jobs the stadium is projected to provide would cost $80,000 each under the owners’ proposal, an absurd sum of money considering many of those employees will be making far less than $20 per hour and will work less than half the year.
Mike Stenhouse, a former Boston Red Sox outfielder and the CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, says a deal between taxpayers and the PawSox is possible, but only under the right conditions.
“In order to make this work we must ensure the deal requires no new spending from the state budget and taxpayers must not be responsible for any potential shortfall,” said Stenhouse. “The upside potential of this deal must be shared by both parties in the form of team revenue, parking revenue, etc. … and finally the state must hold an out-clause in the event the team doesn’t perform as projected.”
History has shown, however, that any investment on the part of taxpayers for the building of sports arenas may do nothing more than line the pockets of already extremely wealthy owners.
In a report conducted by the Reason Public Policy Institute, authors Samuel Staley and Leonard Gilroy say the majority of research on the economic effects of stadium constructionhas found no link between the new facilities and job or income growth, suggesting taxpayers may be better off letting teams relocate.
“While a downtown stadium is a nice idea, I will resist any proposal that puts the People’s treasure on the hook for a speculative venture that funnels all the profits into the pockets of the PawSox’ owners,” said RI state Rep. Blake A. Filippi (I-Block Island). “Public risk with private gain is the very definition of crony corporatism, and we must reject these voodoo economics.”
RI State House. Photo by Will Hart.