For nearly 150 years, America’s pastime has been Worcester’s pastime. Professional baseball’s first “perfect game” occurred on the Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds back in 1880, when Worcester fielded one of only eight National League teams. The city’s embrace of the Worcester Bravehearts, among the top 10 in 2017 attendance of the 153 teams in the summer collegiate leagues, illustrates that baseball is still a vibrant part of Worcester’s culture. Add easy accessibility to a broader market of more than 6 million people within an hour’s drive, it is only natural that the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, looked to Worcester for a new home.
Tonight, the Worcester City Council votes on whether to borrow nearly $101 million in order to build a 10,000-seat baseball stadium for the use of the popularly monikered WooSox. This amount represents approximately one-seventh of the city’s current debt load. Of this new debt, $30 million will be paid by the team through annual rent payments over thirty years while $71 million will be paid by new revenue streams for the city designed to be kick-started by the construction of the ballpark.
While the city is building the ballpark, this is not simply a ballpark project.
Madison Downtown Holdings, a real estate development firm with experience in the city and beyond, is acquiring the Wyman-Gordon site - an important gateway to the city and a significant development priority for decades - on which to locate both the ballpark and a mixed-use project. A central part of this effort, Madison is proposing the construction of two hotels totaling approximately 250 rooms, 250 market-rate apartments, and 65,000 square feet of retail. A longer-term phase two could include an office property and additional residential and retail space. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is providing significant support - $32.5 million in infrastructure investment, including a city-owned public parking garage, as well as much needed infrastructure improvements around Kelley Square, the Canal District, and Green Island. The state is also offering $2.5 million in tax credits for the residential development. Madison’s involvement - providing the land for the ballpark and generating both rent and property taxes for the debt - offers new revenues, not current taxes, designed to be sufficient to pay for the new borrowing.
The Research Bureau, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, has long championed informed public policy and decision-making. Our purpose is to educate on sound local government practices and effective public expenditure. The research on public stadium projects is too often discouraging. However, transformative redevelopment, with a mix of public and private investments and uses, offers more opportunity for success.
We commend the city manager and his team for diligently conceiving of and constructing a redevelopment scenario that would simultaneously transform a 12-acre blighted parcel, generate significant new residential and hotel capacity, and restructure a key gateway into the city. While admittedly aggressive, and placing significant public monies on the line, the city has coordinated a project that sends a message - a clear, resounding message - that Worcester has value and is moving forward. It puts an exclamation point on a decade of transformation.
We recognize that this project involves a calculated risk, but we believe that the risk has been considered and mitigated in the project’s design. For mutual success, both public and private partners must work hand in glove to assemble the site, finance the improvements, coordinate the implementation, and cooperate on operation. The city is the linchpin, connecting a baseball team with one particular set of interests to a developer with another set of interests.
There is a chance that timing, implementation, and unforeseen expenses could leave the city with a baseball team and a ballpark but without the planned private development, at least for some period of time. In that circumstance, the city taxpayers might need to pay as much as $3.5 million annually for the debt service on bonds until the private development does occur and provides the benefit of new revenues.
If that should happen, city leadership will need to make the difficult decisions necessary to absorb the debt service shortfall. It may mean smaller government. It may mean fewer services. It may mean delayed public investment. It may mean higher taxes. The embrace of the rewards of this project must be realistically balanced by the risks. Worcester has strength and capacity, however. Worcester’s bond ratings are high and its fund balance is solid. Developers are investing and property values are rising. The city has an excess tax levy capacity of more than $14 million. It would be painful, but not impossible, for the city to overcome the delay or even failure of this project.
In 1888, Worcester resident Ernest Lawrence Thayer wrote “Casey at the Bat,” one of baseball’s most famous poems. Unlike Mighty Casey, however, whose arrogance let go two pitches before getting serious, Worcester should step up to the plate ready to swing for the fences.
Abraham W. Haddad, DMD, of Worcester, is chairman of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau; Timothy J. McGourthy, of Worcester, is executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.