Pawtucket has a PawSox-free future

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Tony Pires bent down to pick up a round wooden plate that was lying on the concrete. It was painted white with a red “SEC 11” between two curved lines that are modeled on the seams of a baseball.

The sign stood in an aisle between two empty sections of an abandoned McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket and had probably fallen off the railing some time ago.

He added it to what was already under his arm. Two more, both labeled “SEC 12”, sat on the edge of the aisle.

McCoy Stadium, the former home of the Pawtucket Red Sox – the triple-A subsidiary of the Boston Red Sox – was empty. Spots of dirt, lit by the afternoon sun, peered through the grass in the field.

The PawSox, a fixture in Pawtucket since 1970, left the city last year after a long battle to build a new downtown stadium failed.

Pires, a former state official and administrative director of Pawtucket who fought to keep the PawSox in town, was born two years after McCoy Stadium opened in 1942. He remembers playing baseball on the stadium field as a little boy.

Now he was collecting a few last souvenirs.

At the same time, on the west bank of the Seekonk River, south of downtown Pawtucket, three yellow diggers sat next to mounds of sediment in a mini wasteland surrounded by green scrub.

The site is part of the future home of Tidewater Landing, a development announced in December 2019 that when completed will include new homes, shops and a professional football stadium as part of a new chapter in Pawtucket’s sporting and economic history.

The stadium will host a team from the United Soccer League Championship, the second division of professional men’s football in the United States, and will host games from spring 2023 – less than five years after the PawSox announcement.

The project, developers and city officials agree, will likely offer greater economic benefits than the proposed new ballpark, while appealing to a rapidly growing football fan base in Pawtucket and Rhode Island.

But both city officials and local residents still feel regret and grief over the loss of their beloved PawSox.

“My heart was broken,” said Pires. “I think a lot of people have had their hearts broken.”

Pires was involved in a 2018 proposal to build a new $ 83 million stadium for the PawSox. But after the proposal encountered obstacles in the state legislature and was renegotiated to remove controversial government bond guarantees that lowered the cost of the project, the owners of PawSox decided not to want to build a new stadium in the city.

On August 17, 2018, the owners held a press conference to announce their approval to move to the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. Suddenly, after almost 50 years, the PawSox should go.

The team was a mainstay in the area. The PawSox Foundation ran charity programs for local schools and, as Pires says, the team provided affordable summer getaways for several generations of Rhode Island families.

The expected final season of PawSox in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic, which made the loss even harder, according to Pawtucket Councilor Alexis Schütte. “It was difficult … not having a chance to really say goodbye,” she said.

Local residents remembered the joy the PawSox had brought to the area. “It was such a good atmosphere in the neighborhood,” said resident David Lithgoe. “Seeing families, little kids excited with their gloves on … it was really, really nice.”

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“Everyone was happy,” said resident Diane Proulx. “Well, there is nothing.”

An invigorating proposition

The town of Pawtucket, whose Old Slater Mill is believed to be the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, was once a thriving industrial town.

But after production left and malls opened outside of the city, businesses failed or moved away.

Former Pawtucket Alderman John Barry III recalls that when he was a child there were “no vacant storefronts” downtown. Now “it’s all gone,” he said.

Dawn Porter, co-owner of Stillwater Books downtown, called the area “sad and depressing.” Porter and her husband Steven Porter viewed the proposed PawSox stadium as a potential economic boost for the region.

Instead, the place where the stadium would have stood was an empty, cracked parking lot that is home to the old Apex department store, a futuristic, pyramid-shaped building from the 1960s that has been largely unused for several years.

When the proposal for the PawSox Stadium failed, Steven Porter said he was “extremely disappointed”.

Pawtucket “is in a state of decline,” Porter said, citing the Memorial Hospital closure in 2018 and the relocation of many small businesses from downtown.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the state government “realized they had to do something” to revive the city after the PawSox left.

As the city and state governments were keen to overcome the PawSox bug, the city asked for development proposals for the now vacant McCoy Stadium area. During these discussions, project developers Fortuitous Partners suggested the first ideas for Tidewater Landing.

Brett Johnson, founder and partner of Fortuitous, said the company thought Pawtucket was the perfect city for a new football stadium, given the huge football market in Rhode Island, the new train station being built in the city, and the location chosen right next to it I-95.

Grebien said the Fortuitous group is highly motivated and very willing to build apartments and shop fronts on the edge of the stadium. “They understood that (auxiliary) development is necessary,” he said.

After several revisions, the board of directors of Rhode Island Commerce Corporation approved a $ 284 million proposal in February, making it the largest development project in Pawtucket history.

The development will take place on 14 hectares of land currently covered with trees and vegetation on both banks of the Seekonk River. The centerpiece, an 11,000-seat stadium, will be on the west bank, but the project will also include a public river walkway, footbridge, shops, restaurants, apartments and a parking garage.

The state will offer $ 50 million in incentives to developers, including a $ 36 million loan that will be repaid with future tax revenue. The stadium itself is entirely privately financed.

“It’s a much bigger, better project (than the new PawSox stadium),” said Grebien. “Football is on the rise … and the development that will happen is probably ten times bigger than we would have got under the PawSox.”

The state estimates the project will create 2,500 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs, and Grebien said the project is expected to generate an additional $ 800 million in tax revenue over the next 20 years.

Challenges in Filling the Void by PawSox

But development has gotten its share of skepticism. Barry, the former city councilor, has expressed doubts about how much the side development will help the city economically, despite believing the soccer franchise itself will be successful.

Dawn and Steven Porter, the owners of Stillwater Books, also wondered if Tidewater Landing will bring a lot of business to the downtown area, which is across I-95 from the project location. And if stores are built next to the football stadium, people will have no motivation to walk downtown.

But Johnson sees it differently. The project “will raise the collective boats in the wider region,” he said.

In addition to demonstrating its potential economic impact, the project must also demonstrate whether it can fill the PawSox-sized hole in the city’s social fabric.

Many involved believe that the soccer team can be as popular as the PawSox, if not more so. City officials and project leaders point to the decline in the popularity of baseball that coincided with the rise of football in the United States.

And as Daniel Silva, boys soccer coach at Tolman High School in Pawtucket said, the city is home to large immigrant communities from Portugal, Cape Verde and Latin American countries where soccer is popular.

But Silva doesn’t know if the city’s interest in the sport will result in significant support and participation for the USL team.

The team must actively establish connections with the community and also make tickets affordable, said Silva. And whether the team can replace the city’s intimate relationship with the PawSox is another question.

“A lot of the PawSox fans have been so loyal … It’s going to be hard to live up to,” he said.

Most of the residents who spoke to The Herald agreed. Hubert Severe, who lives in the neighborhood around McCoy Stadium, said the new football team will “be something new, but it cannot replace what was there”.

“We’re losing part of our history, part of our being,” Grebien said. “So I don’t know if I can ever replace that.”

Stadium stands still

As the Tidewater Landing project progresses – the plan was approved by the Pawtucket City Planning Commission on July 20 – McCoy Stadium remains unused.

His future is uncertain as Grebien previously announced to the WPRI that the city is looking into the possibility of adding another baseball team or turning the stadium into a public security complex.

Pires believes it will likely be demolished, speculating that it could be the location for a new high school building or even a new town hall.

But in the meantime, McCoy Stadium is a reminder of his and the loss of the city: slowly decaying, but largely as it was when baseball fans filled their seats. Images of Red Sox legends in PawSox uniforms still adorn the sidewalks. A giant 33 innings box survives on a wall in the hall dedicated to the longest game in baseball history, played at McCoy Stadium in 1981. Advertising remains the main decoration of the perimeter fence – although one appears to have fallen off the scoreboard.

Outside, a banner that used to advertise fireworks shows after the games on Saturday night hangs over the main entrance to the stadium, torn and swept aside. Hanging awkwardly from the metal supports, it seems a fitting symbol of a changing community, a Pawtucket not sure whether to hold onto the memory of her beloved PawSox or let go and move on.

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