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Mayor's aides consider city-owned new Fenway

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 04/28/00

As the Boston Red Sox struggle to secure financing for a proposed $600 million ballpark project, advisers to Mayor Thomas M. Menino are considering the possibility that the city of Boston could own a new Fenway Park, according to city sources.

Menino has not endorsed such a plan, but sources say his chief of staff, James Rooney, has met privately with several mayoral advisers - including Hale and Dorr senior partner Harold Hestnes and McKinsey and Company management consultant David Fabini - to determine whether city ownership of a new ballpark makes economic sense and to discuss how the proposal might work.

Foxborough parking lot owners object to key provision in Patriots' stadium deal. E3.

Hestnes confirmed yesterday that he is assisting the mayor in reviewing possible ballpark financing schemes but declined to comment on any plans. Red Sox officials also declined to comment.

But although city sources said several options are under review, one plan that is receiving serious scrutiny calls for the city to use its bonding authority to acquire the proposed site for a ballpark and build the facility. In exchange, the city would acquire an ownership stake in the park. As in other cities that have built ballparks, the Red Sox would be expected to lease the facility from Boston.

Whether the city would own the entire ballpark or a share in it could depend on how much the city invests in the project, the sources said.

The estimated cost of acquiring the 14-acre site adjacent to 88-year-old Fenway Park and building the 44,000-seat ballpark is $450 million.

The team's $600 million plan for the entire project, unveiled last year, also includes two parking garages and major infrastructure improvements.

Just two weeks ago, Menino ruled out a similar scheme calling for the creation of a Stadium Authority to develop and own a new ballpark. At the time, Menino said, "I don't want to be in the baseball business."

But now Menino appears at least willing to have his advisers explore in greater detail whether the city should use its bonding authority to buy the land and help build the facility. Unlike prior proposals, the plan may not require the creation of a Stadium Authority, sources said.

Supporters of a city-owned ballpark have argued that Boston could recoup its investment through lease payments and "dedicated revenues," such as ticket sales, concessions, and the sale of luxury boxes. In addition, the city could use increased property taxes from surrounding development to help pay off the bonds.

But critics contend a city-owned stadium is a high-risk political proposition. Indeed, ballpark boosters fear the plan could upend any prospect of getting legislative approvals for any plan before lawmakers adjourn for the year in July.

The fear is that by introducing yet another complex scenario so late in the process, frustrated lawmakers could postpone any action until next year. No formal plan has been submitted to the Legislature by the Red Sox or the city.

Any plan involving city ownership of the ballpark would require a two-thirds vote from the Boston City Council in order to use the city's bonding authority.

But earlier this month, eight of the 13 councilors sent a letter to Governor Paul Cellucci formally notifying him that they had "grave reservations" about using city funds to acquire the site, let alone to help build the ballpark.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran may also be a major stumbling block to a city-owned ballpark. Finneran has consistently opposed the use of public funds in building sports stadiums.

The Legislature's support is essential to obtain funding for the infrastructure and transportation improvements that a ballpark would require, regardless of who owned it. State approval may also be needed if new taxes are required to support the city's investment.

Ballpark opponents have widely scorned the idea of public investment in a new Fenway Park, and tax watchdogs are skeptical about whether the city can afford to invest as much as $450 million in a stadium.

"As more of the city's funds are earmarked, there's less discretion for this kind of venture, and there are a lot of competing needs," said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. "I'd think officials might feel hard-pressed to see investment in a new ballpark for the Red Sox as more important than housing or improved schools, for example."

Other skeptics questioned how the city could protect its investment in the event of a baseball strike or a loss of attendance because of the team's performance.

Publicly owned stadiums are common in other parts of the country, and Major League Baseball has been aggressively pushing for public investment in new ballparks. With the exception of San Francisco, which is almost entirely privately financed, most ballparks built over the past decade have had substantial public investment.

The Red Sox signaled their willingness to cede control of a new Fenway Park when the city-owned Stadium Authority idea was floated.

Indeed, the team's development adviser, Robert Walsh, was promoting the plan to create an authority for months and had been talking with city and state officials about the idea.

But Menino surprised team officials when he said he rejected a city-owned ballpark during a televised interview with the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV last month.

After meeting with the mayor following the interview, Red Sox chief John Harrington refocused his attention on developing a plan for a privately-financed facility.

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