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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
WORCESTER — The proposed deal and financing package to bring the Pawtucket Red Sox to the city cleared its first local legislative hurdle Wednesday night, winning the approval of the City Council Economic Development Committee.
The three-member committee unanimously endorsed the package recommended by City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. that calls for the city to borrow $100.8 million for construction of a 10,000-seat ballpark in the Kelley Square area that will be the new home of the Boston Red Sox top minor league team.
The Worcester Red Sox are looking to start play here in the 2021 season.
The package also provides three tax-relief deals for Madison Downtown Holdings, LLC, the private developer of the proposed $240 million public/private redevelopment project encompassing property on both sides of Madison Street, near Kelley Square.
Madison Downtown Holdings is looking to invest $90 million in construction of two hotels; 225 units of market-rate housing; and some 65,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space on 17 acres of largely vacant and blighted land now owned by Wyman Gordon Co. on both the north and south sides of Madison Street.
Bonds for the ballpark, which will be built by the city, are to be paid off by new property taxes, lease revenues and other new revenue sources generated by the private development. Mr. Augustus said the ballpark project will be "self-sustaining" and will not utilize existing tax funding or require an increase in property taxes.
The deal also waives the first $2 million of building permit, water connection and sewer connection fees for Madison Downtown Holdings.
The committee's favorable recommendation will go before the full City Council for its consideration Wednesday night.
The vote was taken at the conclusion of a second public hearing held by the committee on the ballpark/redevelopment proposal. It lasted nearly 2½ hours with 34 people testifying before the committee.
District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson, committee chairman, called the ballpark/redevelopment project a "historic and proud moment for the city.
"This is something we really all worked on," she said. "It has happened and happened in a right way that will certainly transform Worcester. I'm looking forward to 2021."
Councilor-at-Large Kathleen M. Toomey and District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera also spoke favorably about the overall project and its potential positive impact in some many areas, adding that it will transform a part of the city that has been largely neglected for decades.
Dan Rea, executive vice president and general manager of the PawSox, said the ballclub is "very grateful" for the leadership shown by the City Council, Mayor Joseph M. Petty and Mr. Augustus since the team first began negotiating with the city about moving to Worcester.
He said the ballclub also appreciates all the enthusiasm and support that has been generated for the project, as well as the different perspectives that people have provided during the public hearings.
Mr. Rea, who attended Wednesday night's hearing along with PawSox team president Dr. Charles Steinberg and senior vice president Kim Miner, said the committee's vote culminated a collaborative process and the team now looks forward to the next step when the deal and financing package goes before the entire council.
As part of its vote, the council committee also requested that the city manager pursue with the ballclub and private developer a community benefits agreement to ensure that neighborhood and community concerns are addressed on all aspects of the project.
In particular, the Worcester Community Labor Coalition is looking to have something in writing to make sure the planned building projects fully adhere to Worcester's tax-increment financing policy. That policy requires that recipients make available to Worcester residents 100 percent of new jobs created. It also sets goals for wages and percentage of new jobs to be filled by people of color, women and by low- and moderate-income residents.
Several members of the Worcester Community Labor Coalition spoke about the need to have a negotiated community benefits agreement. Mr. Augustus said he would be willing to initiate such a dialogue.
"I applaud the city for this," said Jack Donahue of the local Carpenters Union and co-chairman of the Worcester Community Labor Coalition. "This is a bold vision and a remarkable job. It's a rare feat in the construction world when you have something that can be truly transformative. I look forward to some kind of community benefits agreement that is as historic as the development is."
Fred Taylor, also with the Carpenters Union and the labor coalition, said he hopes a community benefits agreement can be reached that increases diversity in construction-related jobs and permanent jobs so the workforce better reflects the community.
"This is an incredible opportunity to make that happen," Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Augustus said many of the community benefits being sought are included in the letters of intent the PawSox and Madison Properties Holdings have signed with the city.
Several representatives from local trade unions also attended the public hearing and urged that the construction project be made "union only." They pointed out that union projects have "a record of being done on time and under budget," and they also have impressive safety records.
A clear majority of those who testified before the committee spoke in favor the project. U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, also provided a letter of support for the project and offered to help the city in any way needed. In addition, the committee received letters of support from 15 neighborhood groups from all parts of the city.
There were some who expressed concern about the potential impact the ballpark project might have on city finances if new tax revenues are not realized to pay off the bonds.
Robert W. Baumann, chairman of the Department of Economics and Accounting at the College of the Holy Cross, said he is concerned about the amount of risk the city is willing to take. He said his concerns were mainly about how the stadium will do financially after its first 10 years when the novelty of it wears off with area residents.
He added that baseball is a sport that has seen declining attendance over the years at both the major and minor league levels.
Meanwhile, some business owners in the Canal District area expressed concerns about the planned makeover of Kelley Square.
The state will be making a $35 million investment over the next two to three years to largely support infrastructure and roadway improvements in and around the development area. It is also looking to redesign and reconstruct Kelley Square, one of the more dangerous intersections in the state, to make it safer for pedestrians and motorists and to improve traffic flow.
But some business owners said they feared that changes might lead to making access to their establishments more difficult in the long run.
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