It finally happened.
After over a year of secretive negotiations, cautious but growing excitement from Worcester’s business community and a campaign of support from the city’s baseball fans, a tentative deal has been struck: The Pawtucket Red Sox are coming to the heart of Massachusetts.
The city confirmed this morning that a 2 p.m. announcement at Worcester City Hall is planned, though did not provide details about what would be discussed. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito plans to attend, according to her daily schedule.
The agreement marks a seismic jolt in the fortunes of a resurgent Worcester and a bereft Pawtucket, where the PawSox have played to loyal, if shrinking, crowds for 48 years. MassLive learned of the deal from multiple sources familiar with the discussions. The deal still needs the stamp of approval of Worcester’s city council and approval from Minor League Baseball to become official.
The contest for the team, officially launched last July when PawSox officials announced that negotiations for a new stadium in Rhode Island had reached an impasse, pitted two of New England’s post-industrial cities in competition.
Worcester officials and business owners in the city’s Canal District launched parallel charm offensives, as city leaders held hush-hush meetings with Red Sox executives and Canal District entrepreneurs made public overtures to the team.
The Canal District Alliance organized a campaign sending at least 10,000 postcards to the PawSox and the Massachusetts governor’s office, declaring Worcester’s interest in becoming the new home of the Triple A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
Pawtucket fought hard, pitching an $83 million stadium deal that would have placed a new ballpark amid 50,000 square feet of new riverside development. That deal cleared the Rhode Island Senate in January. Despite wariness from members of the House, who had fresh memories of the state’s $75 million bet on Curt Schilling’s ill-fated 38 Studios video game company, a modified version of the deal passed and was signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in June.
But with the PawSox’ lease of McCoy Stadium ending in 2021, the team faced a looming deadline on its future. And now, it is decided: that future is in Worcester.
The deal is a coup for a city whose leaders have already worked to engineer a wholesale redevelopment of its downtown. More than $2 billion in downtown development has been completed in recent years and more than 500 housing units built, according to the Worcester Chamber of Commerce. And the half-billion dollar City Square redevelopment has brought hundreds of market-rate housing units, the new AC Marriott hotel and glass-fronted office buildings to the heart of the city.
The deal will make Worcester home of the most high-profile sports franchise in Central or Western Massachusetts. It marks the culmination of years of hopes, ambitions and backroom discussions between city leaders and team executives.
In 2015, after an ownership group led by Boston Red Sox Chairman Larry Lucchino purchased the PawSox, the team floated the idea of leaving Pawtucket. As a deal for a publicly financed stadium in Providence was negotiated and fell apart that year, other cities — including both Worcester and Springfield — began considering whether they could lure the team out of Rhode Island.
But the PawSox committed to holding exclusive talks with Pawtucket, in an effort to keep the team in its historic home. That agreement expired in June 2017, when Rhode Island’s legislative session ended without a deal. The team released a statement courting proposals from other cities, launching a wave of interest from Massachusetts cities and towns.
Weymouth, Attleboro, Brockton and Springfield were all considered, but only two serious contenders emerged: Worcester and Pawtucket. As Pawtucket engaged in a highly public effort to pitch legislators on a financing deal, Worcester’s leadership negotiated with the team in secret, hiring consultants and hosting executives for meetings that occasionally leaked to the local press.
In interviews last year, economic experts told MassLive that the stadium could provide a substantial boost to the local economy if it leads to additional private development. But academic estimates of the effect of stadium developments are mixed, and a 2006 survey of economists found that 85 percent supported eliminating subsidies to professional sports franchises.
A landmark study by Stanford economist Roger Noll and Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist — who Worcester hired as a consultant on the PawSox deal — found that publicly financed stadiums are a net negative for their home towns, and largely divert spending from other businesses rather than creating new economic activity. But a 2013 study found that minor league baseball stadiums are less likely to crowd out other spending and might boost local incomes.
And the deal raises existential questions for the future of the Worcester Bravehearts, a collegiate league team that brought summer baseball back to Worcester in 2014.
But for the city’s leadership the deal is a major coup. And the message it sends is clear: professional baseball has a home in Worcester.
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