Tonight, the City Council will likely approve a deal to bring the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester, likely unanimously (or close enough, if Councilor Wally abstains).
I don’t think there’s much anyone can do to sway any city councilor from voting yes on this, or even in making the plan any better than what was presented, but I thought I’d share an outline of what we’re getting into, mostly so that some of us can say “I told you so” twenty years from now.
If you feel strongly about this, reach out to your city councilors. This blog post assumes that you’ve basically read everything there is to read about the WooSox and that you agree with me.
The Myth of the Spoiler in Worcester Politics
First, I’d like to talk about the myth of the spoiler.
There’s a sense, shared by many #WorcPoli types, that anyone who reads the full details of a proposed deal and then has any questions, or who (gasp!) speaks against it in public, or is the sole vote against such a deal, is somehow going to Ruin This For Us All.
This explains at least 90% of the hostility towards Konnie Lukes and the dreaded 10-1 vote…a vote that even she will avoid tonight.
Consensus is a worthy goal, but true consensus can only come about through conversations, questions, answers, and (especially) honesty.
It seems that in the case of the proposed stadium (and the surrounding projects that will fund it), honesty in particular has been in short supply.
The Myth of the Silver Bullet
I’m not sure if the legend of the werewolf began in Worcester, but we certainly hold on to any silver bullet we can find…until the next one comes along.
Longtime residents may recall rosy promises about how Med City would spin off other economic development downtown, or how the Hanover Theater would create a renaissance on its side of Main Street. Even longer-time residents may recall that the Centrum’s economic spinoff would have sustained more than one restaurant and a few parking lots downtown.
All of these claims were wildly over predicted, and have all been underwritten by the taxpayer, but who’s to let a little thing like a track record get in the way of our DREAMS?
This is why the Telegram can publish an article like “Developers come knocking now that Worcester plans ballpark, business group says” — even after MassLive reports that hotel/residential developer Denis Dowdle would have developed on the site regardless of whether the stadium were built.
Well, which is it? Certainly Tim Murray getting a phone call must be more indicative of Worcester’s development potential than, you know, someone who started buying a property and who was actively seeking to develop it, right?
Two “Hearings” do not community engagement make
I tried very hard to attend both Economic Development committee hearings. I was overheated in the first one, at the Crompton Place White Room, and sitting next to an overly loud compressor that made it difficult to hear the speakers. Frankly, I was expecting a more substantial presentation by the city and its partners than was offered.
I showed up at the second meeting at City Hall at 5:40pm; at that point it was standing room only and anyone outside the room couldn’t hear the proceedings. So I left shortly after arriving.
City government and business leaders have touted Worcester as a great bedroom community for Boston (though it’s couched in terms of giving Worcester residents access to Boston jobs via commuter rail). Scheduling important meetings for 5:30 means that anyone with a 9-to-5 job (in Boston or even closer) can have a tough time attending a public meeting. This city continues to do a poor job of engagement, and this process was probably worse than most.
Worcester loves secrets, so of course there will be no disclosure of the detailed figures that lead to the proforma; the best detail one can get is through a nine-page letter from the city auditor, much of which is a rehash of the larger report.
Neither public meeting went into any great depth about how this will impact taxpayers (except to say that it won’t!) or what the actual costs will be. Citizens can’t even rely on the Telegram for that, because we just get “take our word for it” statements from the city manager.
So we need to rely on the Boston Globe to tell us that the city is guaranteeing $3.1 million a year in sponsorships for the first five years the team is in Worcester, and that an unspecified (love the secrets!) third party will pick up the slack if they can’t get the sponsorships. At least some of the sponsorships could come from various non-profit foundations.
In Which Nicole Gets Serious For A Moment
This past summer, two young people from Worcester died in drowning incidents.
We can’t afford to fund free swimming classes for our youth, swimming classes which are desperately needed, but somehow we can ask corporations and non-profit foundations to give the WooSox $3.1 million every year — and (as taxpayers) be on the hook if those pledges don’t come through?
We have a great summer recreation program, Recreation Worcester, that doesn’t provide transportation and which closes when it rains. [PS — yes, I know that the WooSox have pledged $50,000 over the next two years to Recreation Worcester. That equals just 6% of the RecWorcester budget.]
Ask yourself, honestly, are we funding every community project to the fullest that the only thing left to fundraise is billionaire subsidies?
Back to Admiral Ackbar shouting “It’s a Trap”
We all know it’s a trap.
We don’t even need the Worcester Business Journal to (inexplicably) tell us it’s a trap.
The stadium will be built in two years (and Kelley Square will be “fixed”) in the same city that is on its third year of repaving a one-mile stretch of June Street.
The tax revenues we would have gotten from the hotels/residential (that, as you may recall, were going to be built regardless of this deal) will instead be rolled into paying off the stadium bond. I wonder what else we could have been doing with $1.38 million…but we’ll never know!
There’s a long, infinitely quotable Deadspin piece that you should read. One of the best quotes is from Andrew Zimbalist, an economist hired by the city to evaluate (and, according to him, at least partially negotiate) this plan: “[Augustus and Traynor] wanted only to do this if the city was not going to have to increase taxes on anybody in order to finance the team moving.”
Thus, the shell game is born. Tax revenue that was all-but-guaranteed will now be used to finance a project that is not self-sustainable. The DIF will last thirty years, which is an awful lot of taxes being funneled to subsidize Lucchino, et al.
(Because you know we needed to touch on my favorite topic)
The city will own the proposed 500-space parking garage, which will be leased to Madison Development Holdings; in the first year it’s projected that we get $559,810 in real estate taxes and $250,000 for the lease, and also that the city would get another $595,650 in revenue in other lots due to events at the stadium. (This can be found on page 5 of the City Auditor’s letter.)
I haven’t been able to find more recent figures than those from the 2013 Parking Study and a 2016 Research Bureau report. (I welcome anyone pointing me in the direction of more recent figures, but in the meantime I’ll stick with the 2016 WRRB report.)
In FY2015, all city-owned off-street lots brought in $310,820 in income (though expenses put them in the red) and Federal Plaza and Union Station, both similar-sized garages to the one proposed, brought in an average income of $469,000, again in the red due to expenses.
(Let’s assume, for the moment, that we will get $809,000ish from MDH in the first year for the new garage, and just focus on the part of this that is dependent on existent city-owned parking lots.)
The only way we could get $595,650 in parking revenue in the first year is if: the city charges $5/car during events for WooSox games, all 980 city-owned parking lot spots (including the Highland Street Lot, the McGrath Lot, Amtrak/MBTA Lot, and the Expressway Area C lot on Grafton Street) would be used exclusively for 125 PawSox events, and we get volunteers to collect the cash required. (We could, of course, charge more for parking, but we know how Worcesterites feel about that.)
According to the Auditor, and the proforma for this deal, in the first year, and presumably to year 15, parking from city-owned lots (excluding the garage) will account for 16% of the revenue to pay down the bond.
My suspicion is that, as with so many other economic development activities, city-owned parking will appear to be in the red even further to subsidize a business.
I’m not sure how the rest of the figures on the projected revenue work out, but I would question everything based on the parking projections alone.
It’s a Trap, Continued
Heck, even I’m falling into the trap.
The PawSox have said that their attendance is in the 6,000 range, and all estimates assume that they will have much higher attendance in Worcester. Of course, their attendance has dropped in years past, and GoLocalProv has questioned their attendance figures. While I’m skeptical of anything reported by GoLocal, I’d like to see the team’s plans for how they will improve attendance besides “everyone likes a shiny new stadium” and “Worcester is better than Pawtucket.”
The PawSox also have 70 scheduled home games a year, and have promised Worcester a total of 125 events, which means there need to be 55 non-baseball events in the stadium every year. How much of the estimates are based on a similar attendance level to the Sox games?
McCoy Stadium currently hosts events like wrestling and food truck festivals. At the White Room hearing, Dr. Charles Steinberg mentioned other events similar to ones currently hosted in Worcester. How much competition would there be with the DCU Center, Ecotarium, and other venues for events planned at the proposed stadium?
What about Labor?
Goodness knows I’m not a progressive, but most of my friends are.
And the Worcester Community-Labor Coalition has been working in overdrive to ensure that good-paying jobs go to Worcester residents.
At the City Council meeting where this plan was first presented, Councilor Lukes asked the City Manager if there was any further negotiation possible, and the City Manager indicated that it should be an up/down vote and that there was not a lot of wiggle room.
Considering the city’s investment in this project, it seems ludicrous to me that local hiring and fair labor practices weren’t included in the details of the plan. I hope WCLC can work with the City Manager’s office on that, but it seems we have a long way to go in advocating for where our money gets spent.
But We Want It!
Well, I don’t, but I’m sure a lot of folks do.
But the real reason for this project comes from Professor Victor Matheson of Holy Cross: “I think Worcester just really, really, really, really, really wanted a baseball team. I think the city council and the mayor and the city manager had a gigantic inferiority complex, and they wanted to create an identity for the city, and didn’t care what it cost them.”
The fact of the matter is that certain people in this city want something for nothing. Unfortunately, our negotiating partners also want something for nothing, and they found a city administration willing to give it to them.
Rather than patting ourselves on the back for a good deal, we should ask ourselves who it is good for, and why we are offering so much more than any other community was willing to.
Sadly, none of your elected officials will ask any of these questions tonight. They will not wonder why nonprofits will be asked to subsidize a stadium rather than help the disadvantaged of our city. They will not see that the PawSox need Worcester (and its money) a lot more than Worcester needs the PawSox.
But please come out tonight to City Hall and make them think a little.