August 27, 2017

Mariano: Should Worcester invest in Triple-A baseball? Register your vote!

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Canal District postcard

The Canal District Alliance produced postcards to Gov. Charlie Baker to help bring the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester.

Editor’s note: Please continue to enjoy this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor, and be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends. Ray can be reached via email at Mariano@worcester.ma.

Ray Mariano

I love baseball – and the Red Sox are my team. And, just to be clear, I hate the Yankees.

A few weeks ago, at the All-Star break, the Red Sox were in first place with a 3½-game lead over the Yankees. Shortly after the second half of the season started, the Sox lost a few games in a row and all of a sudden, the Yankees were sitting in first place. My friend Carl, a real Yankees guy, called and left me a telephone message of a choking sound.

Wouldn’t it be great having the Triple-A Red Sox play the Yankees’ International League affiliate right here in Worcester?

Well, we have a real opportunity to do just that!

A little history

According to Bill Ballou of the Telegram & Gazette, in 1976-77 Worcester had a few meaningless conversations with someone named Marvin Adelson about bringing the Triple-A team to Worcester. In those days, the International  League owned the team, so the discussions were not worth much.

When I was mayor, we had a conversation with the Red Sox about moving their Pawtucket franchise to Worcester. Right from the start, General Manager Mike Tamburro, a Worcester native, made it clear that the team’s first choice was to stay in Pawtucket. We knew that Worcester was being used as bait to force Pawtucket’s hand.

But there was a chance, albeit a small one, that the Pawtucket deal would fall through. If that happened, we wanted Worcester at the front of the line. I believed then, and still do, that a Triple-A Red Sox affiliate would be a great addition to our city.

An aerial view of a digital rendering of the potential WooSox ballpark.

More PawSox-to-Worcester:

The deal in Pawtucket

The Red Sox’s lease of the existing 75-year-old McCoy Stadium runs out in 2020. The team wants a new stadium to help attract new fans to the games – the team has experienced a 10-year slide in attendance from a high of about 9,500 fans a game in 2005 to about 6,000 a game this year. The team ranks 10th in the 14-team league in attendance.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

Source: theballparkatslatermill.com

Although Pawtucket stepped up in 1999, it may be a different story in 2017. Under new ownership, the team in Pawtucket gave the city and the state of Rhode Island a deadline of July 1 to complete a deal or it would no longer negotiate exclusively with Pawtucket. That deal had Pawtucket investing $15 million, the state investing $23 million, and the remaining $45 million, plus any cost overruns, for a new stadium being the responsibility of the team.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

Source: theballparkatslatermill.com

Pawtucket is willing to make the investment to keep the team. There is a website devoted to promoting the many advantages of having the team in that community.

However, unlike the city’s spending piece, the state investment stalled. Insiders have pointed the finger at a rocky relationship between Rhode Island’s governor and leaders in the state Legislature.

At present, the PawSox have been contacted by about a dozen communities, including Springfield and Fall River, expressing some level of interest in attracting the team. While there have been a few “off-the-record” visits to some of those communities, Worcester has been the only community where owners and executives from the team have taken the time to officially and publicly tour the proposed site for a stadium and meet with local leaders.

Here are the benefits

Most people agree that having the Red Sox’s top minor-league affiliate in Worcester would be an unqualified asset for the city. Here are some of the obvious benefits:

1.) Finding something for the vacant Wyman-Gordon site  Sure, there are plenty of wonderful ideas about what we might want located on the Wyman-Gordon site. But the simple truth is that the site is contaminated and has been sitting vacant for about 15 years. During that period, there has been very little serious discussion about what to do with this 12.68-acre parcel.

Wyman-Gordon site

Worcester Sun

The vacant Wyman-Gordon parcel near Kelley Square, photographed from Lamartine Street.

Locating a baseball team there would require that the site be cleaned up. It would eliminate a gaping eyesore from the middle of a major entryway into our downtown, and bring life to an area that is, and likely would otherwise remain, barren for decades to come.

2.) Continuing the revitalization of the Canal District  Ten years ago, the Canal District was in rough shape. Today, it is a beehive of new shops and activity. Adding a Triple-A team and stadium would cause an explosion of activity in the area and make the Canal District one of the hottest destinations in the region.

3.) Fixing Kelley Square  If Worcester had a dollar for every curse word uttered while a driver was trying to get through this ridiculous mess of roads and intersecting ways, we could pay for the entire stadium and have plenty left over to fix the traffic nightmare that we call Kelley Square.

Bringing another 3,000-5,000 cars to a new ballpark at the proposed site would have a huge impact on Kelley Square. To make this possible, we would need to have a redesign of all of the roads leading into this area. That would force the state to invest millions. The end result would be a substantial benefit to that entire section of the city.

4.) Civic pride!  I remember when we opened the Centrum (now the DCU Center); Frank Sinatra was the main attraction. The next day the headline in the Telegram shouted “No more little town blues.” Major entertainment venues that attract thousands of visitors to a community can have a huge impact on civic pride.

Adding a Triple-A Red Sox affiliate and stadium to Worcester will have an enormous impact on our perception of ourselves. By itself, adding the team would be a significant accomplishment. But add the team to the redevelopment of downtown and the hundreds of millions of investment dollars pouring into our city, and you have something really special.

More in today’s Sun:

Here are possible concerns

1.) Taxpayer investment  To bring the Triple-A team to Worcester, both the city and the state will need to make investments. At this point, no one knows exactly what that financial deal would look like. It will certainly include cleanup costs associated with the site, infrastructure work for redesigning and reconstructing Kelley Square, and some sort of tax break for the team.

The Red Sox are confident the increased taxes that they would pay, even with a tax break, combined with increased taxes associated with area businesses directly as a result of the team locating there will pay for all of the annual debt on any taxpayer loan.

My best guess is that might be true initially, but we should assume some taxpayer costs beyond that going forward.

2.) Impact on the Bravehearts  When Worcester was looking for someone to step in and take ownership of a Futures Collegiate Baseball League team, the Creedon family stepped up. Since that time they have invested their money and their time making that franchise successful. The Bravehearts just completed their 56-game fourth season, averaging 2,356 fans per game, a 6 percent increase over last year’s FCBL-best 2,230 fans per game. In fact, Ballpark Digest touted the Bravehearts’ 2017 attendance as seventh-best in the nation among  summer collegiate franchises.

Worcester has an obligation to do whatever it can to ensure that any deal does not leave the Bravehearts and the Creedon family high and dry.

3.) Traffic at Kelley Square  No matter what we do to Kelley Square, adding thousands of additional cars into this area will create more traffic challenges. The good news is that most games are played either in the evening, after rush hour, or on the weekend, when regular traffic is significantly reduced.

Courtesy Chris Markman / YouTube

Kelley Square is already a tough assignment for local drivers, never mind visitors passing through.

Look at it this way: If the city of Boston only built something that would have a minimal impact on traffic, it would never build anything ever again. Having traffic is the price you pay for living in a vibrant city. Besides, all of the local residents will quickly figure out ways to avoid the area on game days.

4.) This project will compete with other state funding priorities There is an argument being made by some that if we get state funding for this project, that will limit our ability to get funding for other important projects. Nonsense!

When was the last time that you heard that argument applied to Boston? Never. When it has a project worth pursuing, it demands the state’s support.

Worcester has to stop acting like our state leaders are doing us a favor when we get funding for a project; they are simply doing their job. It is time we asked for what we need without feeling embarrassed. We are the second-largest city in New England. We should act like it.

5.) The experience in Hartford  A recent article in Worcester Magazine detailed the struggles of a Double-A Colorado Rockies team in Connecticut. While the descriptions of the Hartford problems are accurate, in my opinion, they do not apply to Worcester. First, as they have for Pawtucket, the private team ownership would likely be willing to take on the responsibility of any cost overruns that were a real problem in Hartford.

Second, and more importantly, in New England, who the heck wants to see the Colorado Rockies’ minor-league anything? What makes this franchise exciting is that they are the top-level Red Sox affiliate.

What’s next?

I was listening to Mayor Joe Petty talk about possibly getting the Red Sox to locate in Worcester on the Jordan Levy Show. With each question Jordan asked, the mayor said, “We’re not there yet, we’re just talking.”

So what are the next steps?

Worcester  The reason that the two sides are just talking is that Worcester does not have an actual site to offer to the ballclub. If Worcester is serious, the very next step is for Worcester to gain control over the Wyman-Gordon site. As I write this column, there have been no discussions by Worcester officials with Wyman-Gordon executives about the site.

There are several ways to get this done, but before anything else moves forward, Worcester needs to control the site. Once that happens, serious negotiations can begin.

Red Sox  This entire interaction reminds me of two teenagers at a middle school dance looking at each other, both afraid to ask the other if they would like to dance. Unless they want to stand against the wall all evening, someone has to summon the courage to make the first move – or run the risk that a third party will step in and take that chance away.

If Red Sox executives see Worcester as a good fit, they need to give Worcester a timeframe for responding. By setting a reasonable deadline, the Red Sox push Worcester into acting and, at the same time, let Worcester know that they are serious about the city.

Think big, be bold and invest

To get this deal done, Worcester needs a leader with strong political connections and a real desire to lead. That man is Ed Augustus. The city manager is uniquely qualified for this assignment. He has strong connections with our congressman, with leaders on Beacon Hill, and with Tim Murray at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. If he wants to, he can pull all of the pieces together.

Recently, the city manager sent a letter to the Red Sox signed by 107 business, political and community leaders expressing “strong and enthusiastic support” for bringing the team to Worcester. That letter is nice, but Augustus needs to move boldly and decisively if Worcester has any chance of being a serious contender.

Sure, there are challenges with locating a major sports franchise here in Worcester. And it is also very possible that the team will end up staying in Pawtucket. But sitting on the sidelines guarantees bad news. In my opinion, locating a Triple-A Red Sox affiliate in our city would be a huge win.

Every Little Leaguer learns one simple truth: You can’t hit the ball unless you are willing to swing the bat. It is time for Worcester to step up to the plate, focus on the pitch and take its best swing.

Play ball – Triple-A ball in Worcester!

Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.

12 thoughts on “Mariano: Should Worcester invest in Triple-A baseball? Register your vote!

  1. Tell us why Wyman Gordon has no obligation to clean up the site.

    What marketing research has been done to indicate what long term interest there is in a baseball team? It is one thing to have fans next year, another to have them in 2025. Will someone be writing a column at that time “What to do with Wyman-Gordon Stadium?” ?

    What is there to be learned from, for example, the city of Portland Maine?

    What is alot of money for Worcester taxpayers is pocket change for the very rich Red Sox organization (ask Pablo Sandoval).

    Wanna clean something up? Try Doherty High School.

    • Wyman Gordon has a responsibility to clean up the site if they want to use it. For the past 15 years they have been happy to leave it gathering litter. They have no obligation to clean it for use by the City. Site cleanup using federal, state or local funds is certainly not unprecedented. If Worcester wants to use the site it would buy the site at a much reduced price and then look to the state for help with cleanup.

      As to a marketing study, that would be a part of any negotiations. However, rather than look at Portland, the better example is Pawtucket itself where the team has been successful for 75 years. The stadium there is old and needs to be replaced. The City of Pawtucket is anxious for them to stay because of the many benefits they have received.

      I certainly agree that Doherty and Burncoat should be cleaned up!

  2. It would be a lot of money and reorganization of the roadways in that area. My concern would be, how long will people continue to be interested in supporting the Paw Sox in Worcester? Would the investment continue to be a good one long term in the future? I have fond memories of going to a Red Sox game every summer as a kid with my dad. Now, the games are so expensive many families cannot afford to go to Red Sox games so the Paw Sox games in Worcester would be a nice, affordable alternative. I would also like to see Worcester put a big chunk of money into a top notch children’s museum complex to bring families into the city and create some visitor tourism as well as a great place for residents of Worcester to bring their families.

  3. Ray did his home work here – there’s so much that needs to be looked at and coordinated. Most of it will be under the radar of the media (and should be). Going in sequential order of this column:
    While the PawSox has had a slide in attendance, what are the factors? Poor on field product, poor off-field product, stadium conditions, market more competitive with other choices, cost? More importantly – how is has the team done fiscally? They could still be doing well and in the black such as price points on merchandise, concessions, ticket sales (higher ticket price but lower attendance can still make more money), and corporate sponsor support. Did they change their ticket sales model where before they gave away many tickets, and have since reduced? I guess what I’m trying to say is attendance looks nice on the surface, but there’s so much more to show successes, problems, or failures.
    The W-G site is a concern. Lord knows how polluted it actually is. For example, look at the new WRTA over by Crompton Park. If I saw any estimate for cleanup, I would immediately double it.
    I don’t think there’s any way to fix Kelley Square. It is what it is. 290 traffic will have to be directed to 146 and surrounding streets. The state did a great job with 146 in and out of the city, and can probably leverage and modify those improvements to accommodate traffic better than Kelley Square ever could.
    While yes there will need to be taxpayer investment, I’m against giving the team a tax break. We’ve got someone like Railers owner Cliff Rucker investing into Worcester and it’s community like crazy – not one TIF has been asked for. Worcester is hot right now. Businesses should be getting in early/now. Red Sox would learn a lot by studying what Cliff Rucker has done here, and why.
    I do think the Bravehearts will be sunk if we get the AAA-Red Sox. But I also have faith in Augustus/Murray/Polito that the Creedons will be taken care of – probably doing concessions for the AAA-Red Sox. The Creedons deserve our respect and admiration for believing in Worcester and being 1st class top to bottom.
    I have said publicly and privately that Worcester needs to start acting like the 2nd largest city in New England. Lately, we have seen more of a change to actually get things done in Worcester. I believe that Augustus/Murray/Polito will put Worcester’s best interests in mind, and will keep doing plenty of work (under the media radar) with the Red Sox. The Red Sox aren’t playing us off of Pawtucket. They see what’s going on here. As a community, we need to continue being cheerleaders, and being highly visible that we support the AAA-Red Sox coming to Worcester

  4. I would like to see a Worcester stadium:
    1) It is only 30 minutes for me to get from my office to the WG site, about 60 to get to Pawtucket.

    BUT
    1) Consider visiting the Pawtucket stadium: it is clean and offers clear sight lines, concessions are easy to reach.
    2) There is NOTHING OLD about this stadium. It was renovated in the late 90s. Why does everything have to be brand new?
    2) Parking is FREE.
    3) Highest ticket price is $14.

  5. Nicely presented argument, Mr. Mariano. If the city doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity, it’s unlikely to get another serious one like it for at least a generation, probably longer. Questions, though: What would a “fair” way be of dealing with the Creedon family and how much would it cost? Second, if the city acquired the Wayman-Gordon site and the Paw Sox end up walking away, are we left with a white elephant? What would our options be? As for Kelly Square, re-designing it is an exciting proposition, but it will definitely be expensive and will undoubtedly affect the neighborhood. What would a redesign look like? Could it be implemented without driving way the businesses and residents that live immediately nearby? If not, would that be an acceptable cost? I don’t know at this point in the game (no pun intended). I do think the city needs to keep pursuing this and act like it really wants it. Thanks for a thoughtful article.

    • The City does not have to actually purchase the site at this point. The City could obtain an “option” on the site for almost no money -with an agreed upon ultimate purchase price. This would allow the City to proceed with negotiations without any real financial risk.

  6. As usual it was a very thought out article. In concept I agree but my concern is for the Worcester Bravehearts. They have become partners with the city and have been involved in many service learning projects.
    If it becomes a reality let’s not leave the Bravehearts out in the cold!

  7. This is a great opportunity. The City is headed in the right direction and this would only help by cleaning up an area that desperately needs it, bring jobs, business and revenue. Not to mention a sense of pride and esteem.

  8. Great opportunity? For who? Corporate interests only. And the locals pay for it. The Sox will screw the city & state big time. Petty and his mafia are lying about it.
    Some yap about how great it would be, no it won’t. Worcester already has problems “supporting” local pro teams. And this is somehow different?
    Fact is, I don’t want to pay for it through tax breaks, rise in property assessments etc.
    It offers the local little to nothing, I have no interest in sporting events and I know I speak for 100’s of thousands of others.
    Red Sox if you’re reading this STAY AWAY, WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. GO AWAY.

  9. Wyman-Gordon owned and used the site for a hundred years. They should foot the bill for cleaning it up and making it presentable, instead of leaving it the eyesore that it is now. And they should do it now.

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