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PawSox exec discusses proposed relocation

Jeff White calls Providence a 'particularly attractive city' to Red Sox
September 18, 2015

Ben's Biz

When it comes to Minor League Baseball in Rhode Island, stability had been a constant.

Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium, which opened in 1942, is nearly half a century older than any other ballpark in the International League. The Pawtucket Red Sox, McCoy's long-time tenant, have served as Boston's Triple-A affiliate since 1973. This, too, is the oldest such relationship in the league. The combination of McCoy Stadium and the Pawtucket Red Sox represents tradition and consistency within an ever-shifting Minor League Baseball landscape where such traits are in short supply.

In one form or another, however, it's likely that big changes are on the horizon. In February, the PawSox were sold by Madeline Mondor, widow of long-time owner Ben Mondor, to a 10-person ownership group headed by Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino and Rhode Island lawyer James Skeffington (Skeffington passed away in May). In short order, the new ownership group announced its intent to move the PawSox to a proposed downtown riverfront stadium, to be built as a public-private partnership, in Rhode Island's capital, Providence.

This proposal was met with an immediate and passionate wave of public disapproval, for reasons both sentimental ("I love McCoy. My grandfather took me to my first game there!") and economic ("Why do rich owners running a private business need to rely on public money? Pay for a new ballpark yourself!"). Nearly seven months later, much remains unclear regarding the specific funding mechanisms for this plan, and success is far from certain. But the ownership group remains resolute in their goal to relocate to Providence, confident that they can persuade the public -- and the politicians who represent them -- that it is best for Rhode Island.

• Ben talks to fans who are opposed to PawSox relocation »

I visited McCoy Stadium on Sept. 1, as part of my season-ending New England ballpark road trip. Prior to that evening's game against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, I spoke with Jeff White, a Boston Red Sox executive with the official title of "Financial Advisor to the CEO." White, who spent 11 years as Major League Baseball's chief financial officer, began working for the Red Sox in 2002 as a financial consultant for Lucchino and, as he puts it, "It just sort of built from there." In addition to his extensive work in the Major Leagues, he is also a limited partner with the Carolina League's Salem Red Sox, Boston's Class A Advanced affiliate.

These days, White maintains an office at McCoy Stadium and visits at least once a week to work on issues surrounding the proposed move.

"Larry [Lucchino] knew I had some understanding of what happened in the Minor Leagues because of my association with Salem," said White, a lifelong Red Sox fan. "So he asked me my views on a few things, when he and the Red Sox were looking to become more involved in the ownership of the team. And then at some point he and Jim [Skeffington] asked me if I'd be willing to spend a day a week here and I said, 'Sure, I'd do that.'"

As for why the new ownership group is pushing forward with its much-maligned plan to move to Providence, White had much to say. What follows are excerpted highlights from our wide-ranging, 30-minute discussion. How did this idea to relocate come about?

Jeff White: I think there was a very strong feeling -- particularly on Jim's part, but also on Larry's -- that in the long run the club had the greatest chance to be successful in Providence. It was particularly important to Jim, especially, because he was a native Rhode Islander. ... He knew everybody here and he lived here his whole life.

If we're talking about a commitment that one can make for a generation and a half, then that commitment is probably best made to Providence, which is a particularly attractive city. For example, it starts with the railroad station, which is really strategically located and has great service by U.S. standards. ... And it is a very important stop between Boston and New York, which is the busiest rail line in the country. It also starts with I-95 and the people that traverse I-95, bringing a lot of commerce into the city and the area.

It also starts with some of the very intelligent development that's going on in the city. There've been slips and falls and missteps, but if you come into Providence what you see is a very solid core of a downtown. And you see people living there, and this is very important. You can't have a successful city without people wanting to live there. Because the model for a successful city -- and there are many these days: the Bostons and the San Franciscos and the New Yorks -- it's not just because they're a place to visit and a place to work, they're also a place to live. And you can see the beginnings of that.

You've got to have that core job-generating group. Rhode Island -- it's not as developed as Boston's is, obviously, but with the educational institutions there -- Brown, Providence College, Bryant, Roger Williams, RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design] -- there's like five institutions that have operations, in some cases their entire operation, in or near the city center. And there aren't too many places that have that many institutions providing employment and attracting students, for a city of that size. I can't think of anybody else, per capita and per square mile.

• Read more about Ben's visit to Pawtucket on the Biz Blog » The move to Providence has run into a lot of opposition thus far, both sentimental and economic. How can you begin to change people's minds?

White: It's fair to say that when you do these things, sometimes there are miscommunications and sometimes there are misunderstandings and sometimes there're some things that you wish you could have done differently. Or, at least told the story differently.

In this case, it's easy to understand why there's a fair amount of opposition. First of all, "They want to leave Pawtucket? Why would they want to do that?" And I think the case that we're making is that Providence is an opportunity. No matter who owns this team, whether it's this group or anybody else, it's an opportunity to link inextricably, for a very long time, this franchise to Rhode Island. And I think that's an opportunity that the state and the city of Providence should not pass on.

There are virtually no ballparks that don't involve some sort of public support. And the reason for that is twofold. One of those is that a Minor League baseball team is not a large enough business. You're talking revenues of somewhere between five and 10 million dollars a year -- that's what a Triple-A ball team's revenues are. Maybe a little bit more than that, maybe a little bit less in some cases. There's not enough profit generated from that to pay for a ballpark in an urban area. To pay for a ballpark anywhere, for that matter.

And it's probably not fair to even ask the owners to even shoulder that burden, because there are so many public benefits associated with that. Now, then you get into the question of "How much should the owners pay?" And that's a perfectly legitimate question. That issue is being negotiated, and has been negotiated and is still being negotiated. And, trust me, the state is being well-protected by the governor and the representatives in the legislature in these negotiations. And they're trying to drive a very hard bargain, and it's a bargain that I think, at the end of the day, if we're able to come to some agreement, that will make a finance guy like me gulp and choke. But it may be something that our ownership is willing to accept. It may be something economically that is at the far upper end of what anybody pays, for the privilege of being in Rhode Island.

But it's not likely that rental payments -- or lease payments, whatever you want to call them -- it's not likely to be able to defease the entire cost of the stadium. There has to be a recognition of some of the other benefits that flow from having a team here. Some of these are very direct and easy to calculate. For example, the amount of money that we pay in taxes on goods that are sold in the ballpark. Sales taxes. Others are still pretty direct, [like] the amount of money we pay in sales taxes to vendors that sell us things.

Then it becomes a little bit harder. The amount of money that visitors pay in terms of occupancy taxes, in the hotels that they stay in here. About half of the people that come here come from out of state, most people don't recognize that. ... But even if you don't count those indirect benefits, there are millions of dollars in taxes that are paid by the team, its employees and its vendors that help contribute to the well-being of the state. And those, along with whatever payments we would make in terms of a lease or rent [payment] would be very significant and I think make it well worth the state having a role in supporting the ballpark. What Minor League Baseball stadiums and markets serve as models for what you're trying to accomplish in Pawtucket?

White: I think there are a number of examples, both at the Major League level and the Minor League level. We took a group down to Durham, for example, to take a look at [Durham Bulls Athletic Park]. But that's not the only place where the people are happy to have their park. ... I don't think I could claim I know what every 160 or so Minor League cities would say. I know a number of them would say -- whether it'd Durham or El Paso or Louisville -- that they're happy to have the ballpark and they don't regret the decision to do it.

I don't know any Major League city that would say "You know, we're sorry we built that park. That was a terrible thing." I think it's one of those things that, once you do it, everybody says "You know, I think this was a good idea." You have to strike a bargain, though, that makes people feel good and that they're not being taken advantage of. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people who feel that staying at McCoy would be a good idea.

White: What's not well known:, our attendance has been in decline here [at McCoy Stadium] and it's not just this year. Some people say "Oh, it's all this controversy." No, it's been going down since 2006. There's been a decline in attendance that we've been fighting here, long before this ownership. There have been improvements made to [McCoy], but it's essentially a ballpark where the basic design and the location is not the urban setting that results in the most benefit both to the public and to the team.

That's not to be critical of the support that Pawtucket's provided or the benefits that the team has enjoyed here for many years. But a recognition that Providence is a site that has a lot of advantages to it, that would cement a long-term relationship between the baseball team and the state of Rhode Island. That's what we're trying to do here.

Things have to change, things have to adapt, things have to be in the best place for them if you want to get long-term relationships that are beneficial to all the sides. But we understand completely why some people would be concerned and upset. That's the great country that we live in. There's a chance for everybody to have different views on this and not throw stones at each other. We understand that, and we understand why people question it, and we're not trying to cover anything up.

If and when there's an agreement, it should be fully vetted by the legislature, and the public should have a chance to go over every single line and make their own judgment. Hopefully that will be a judgment that will be in favor of what we're bringing to the party. But it's a country where, if you do these sorts of things, then you expect this sort of thing. We're in for the long haul and we're not angry with people because sometimes they're angry with us.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.