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A win for the Red Sox and the public: a stadium authority

By Phil Primack, Freelancer, 01/08/00

The Boston Red Sox may soon have a higher authority to turn to to get their 21st century ballpark actually built in the 21st century.

According to several heavies in Boston's sports business world, House Speaker Thomas Finneran and others are quietly floating the idea of a public stadium authority to build and own the ballpark, which the Red Sox would then lease. The approach is new to Massachusetts, though many other states have used such authorities to finance and operate sports facilities.

At first blush, the approach could be positive for both the Red Sox and the public. But only if the authority is structured and operated in a way that protects and promotes the public interest first and that of the team second.

The Red Sox, who face a widening credibility gap by their continued unwillingness or inability to produce a serious financing plan for their ballpark, could benefit in several ways. Creation of a stadium authority to help finance the ballpark means owner John Harrington would not have to bring in a private equity partner, something he clearly wants to avoid. As a public entity, the stadium authority could also sell bonds at a far more favorable interest rate, a factor even more crucial with rates poised to rise over the next year.

At least as important to the team, the authority could more expeditiously move to assemble the land for the new ballpark. Right now city officials are wary of declaring the proposed site as a "blighted area," a condition necessary for the city to exercise its eminent domain power. The authority could take over the task, much as the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority has become the eminent domain force in taking land for the new convention center.

But if it is to have such heady powers as eminent domain, a stadium authority must be properly constructed and duly vigilant in assuring that the public investment in a new park is both protected and returned.

This will be no easy task - the boondoggles of the Massachusetts Port Authority haven't exactly created a warm and fuzzy public mood toward such bodies.

But like it or not, a fundamental political reality dictates that a stadium authority may be the best hope for a true public say in any stadium deal. Finneran and others may genuinely dislike the idea of giving any public money to rich sports teams, but neither he nor other elected officials want to be dubbed as Red Sox deal killers. An authority could offer a far more honest vehicle to define and protect the public role in such a transaction.

And for the Red Sox, the authority may offer the only way to make their ballpark happen.

Despite all the rhetorical smoke about "public infrastructure spending," most of the $70 million Massachusetts is spending for a new Foxboro stadium is going toward direct improvements on New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's private property. The state gets little in return except a marginal revenue stream that may or may not be greater than revenue that would have been generated by alternative uses of the same property.

The new Red Sox ballpark is already tied to promises of broader development. A new stadium authority could provide a public vehicle that would help determine the scope, shape, and feel of such development, including infrastructure requirements needed to make them happen. Dim as the public regard might be for public agencies, would neighborhood groups rather have such development completely left in private hands?

About 20 states have stadium authorities of some sort. They have various designs and financing systems. In Detroit, for example, Detroit Tigers owner Michael Ilitch is spending $145 million of his own money toward the new ballpark slated to open in April. The public is spending about $115 million on the structure, which will be owned by the Detroit-Wayne County Stadium Authority, which will then lease the ballpark to Ilitch for free for 35 years. In at least one public benefit, bleacher seats will be available for as little as $3 - a far cry from recent Fenway Park hyperinflation.

There is no way the Red Sox will get such a sweet deal in Massachusetts.

The team already recognizes that it will likely end up spending more of its own money than any other team in the country. But if there is a true interest in making a new Fenway happen, some kind of responsible, publicly accountable entity will be needed to figure out who pays what, who gets what, and who does what.

A proposal for a stadium authority "would put this whole new Red Sox ballpark into fast-forward gear," said Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It would finally go into warp speed."

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