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Pols caught in a crunch on new ballpark

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 5/31/2000

or those who missed ''The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'' in school, the buzzy new movie ''Gladiator'' tells you all you need to know about the lure of arena entertainment.

For those who comprise Red Sox Nation, the arena that counts is Fenway Park.

For those who hold elected office in Massachusetts, the chore of siting, financing, and smoothing the way for a new arena for our baseball gladiators is a difficult balancing act. On the one side, in favor of lavish public subsidies for this privately owned, theoretically profit-making corporation, are the owners and limited partners, the team's lavishly paid millionaires, the sporting press and cheerleaders of the broadcast biz, and the vast mob of fans.

Ranged against the let's-build-a-new-ballpark-whatever-it-costs-taxpayers are the anti-Fenway neighborhood claque, a tiny band of preservationist antique-lovers, the nonfan base of taxpayers who think the government should not subsidize any private business, and those who think any money diverted to baseball subsidies deprives worthier causes like schools.

All these conflicting forces come into play this afternoon at a 2:15 Fenway summit meeting in the office of Governor Paul Cellucci. He entertains the Three Toms: Mayor Menino, Senate President Birmingham, and House Speaker Finneran. As is usual in politics, deadlines force decisions upon reluctant or unwilling deciders. In this case, the Legislature is due to disband for election season by July 31, and there is the usual midsummer budget crunch to preoccupy our solons. The Red Sox party line is that time is of the essence, the government has to get off the dime.

You wait till the end of July, grump the Fenway demanders, and you add $50 million in inflation and other economic escalators to the already humongous price tag of $627 million. That is a sum of staggering proportions, more than the team itself is worth if sold on the open market ($500 million to $600 million is the going estimate from the Red Sox). For the Red Sox to announce two weeks ago that the company - please, it is a company, not ''the club,'' as if we were all somehow members - that the owners expect $275 million in state and municipal subsidies was an exercise of hubris that is truly Brobdingnagian! For the Red Hose Corp. to delay all these months and then spring such a ghastly demand upon our hapless politicians is a tactic of breathtaking audacity.

Having had an argument with one of my sports columnist pals on the merit of the Sox demand and having heard him assert that the Red Sox have done more for morale and good feeling in New England than any other single institution, I recognize there is no reasoning with some folks on this tender score.

Facing crunch time on what the Sox want - and fully aware that St. Pedro just beat Roger the Turncoat, 2-0, in front of 55,000 in the Bronx and that first place is ours by something like a half-game - the pols are gun-shy. Cellucci needs a deal - any deal. After the Patriots fiasco, his Big Dig went $2 billion in the red, and his lieutenant governor went into subsidized housing and part-time employment, Cellucci is in danger of being waived to Pawtucket if this deal collapses.

Birmingham, who wants Cellucci's job, wants a deal too, so long as the taxpayer doesn't get shafted too badly. Birmingham uses his Patriots' model, measuring the Sox against any nonsports private entity asking for something from the state.

Finneran, who barred the door against excessive caving-in to the Patriots, says he's willing to spend $100 million in state funds on strictly infrastructure improvments to the Fenway, to the Kenmore and Ruggles T stations, and street and utility rebuilding.

Menino is the key at this juncture. What will the mayor demand? He has played it cute, saying he wants the city made whole for whatever revenue stream it commits. His OK is essential to amass the land-takings around Fenway; that process accounts for $140 million of what the Sox want as a city subsidy. Menino wants to get something like $12 million a year from the eventual package. He's pushing for the Sox to sell Fenway naming rights (now a given), raise the $200,000-per-year price tag for the luxury boxes, and reconfigure the Mass. Turnpike for an easy off-on Fenway access that could be coupled with parking garage revenue.

I suspect that Menino is the biggest hurdle for the Sox ownership, but Finneran is always the last hurdle on Beacon Hill. It is now a foregone conclusion that the Sox will rebuild in the Fenway, that the state will kick in for new T stops, streets, utility connections, and maybe mopping up the Muddy River's floods. Finneran won't pay for garages unless the state gets all the revenue.

Menino is holding out for $12 million from the city. ''Speaker Finneran and I both have the same principle of getting a return on our investment,'' the mayor said yesterday. ''This is a real bad deal for the city when the state gets all the payroll, attendance, and meals taxes.''

He links his approval of redevelopment of the whole Kenmore-Fenway area. ''To really do it right, you need those Mass. Pike off- and on-ramps. It's expensive, yes, but that drives up all the real estate values there. I want to get this done - just show me where I get my money back and I'll be on board. We're putting up more money than the state, and we can't do it in isolation from the neighborhood. How do we make that Boylston Street stretch into a real neighborhood? But the big nut is: How does the city get back its investment?''

David Nyhan is a Globe columnist.

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 5/31/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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