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Sox told they have time for finance pitch

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 03/22/00

With skeptics questioning the team's ability to finance its proposed $600 million ballpark, the Boston Red Sox heard encouraging words from key political players on Beacon Hill yesterday.

Although only four months remain in the legislative session, Governor Paul Cellucci said he thinks the Red Sox can agree with state and city officials on public aid for the new Fenway Park before lawmakers adjourn in July.

In separate interviews with The Boston Globe, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran both suggested there was enough time left to pass a financing package. Because this is an election year, lawmakers won't return till January.

Ten months after unveiling theFenway Park plan, the team has not specified how much public aid it needs, leading some to question whether the Sox can assemble the political support necessary to secure up to $250 million in state and city funding.

If there's no action this year, rising interest rates, land values, and construction costs could add at least $50 million to the price tag, say people with experience in sports financing.

"There's enough time to do it" this year, Cellucci said. "The Red Sox need a new Fenway Park and the modern conveniences of a new facility."

Birmingham declined to offer a timetable, but suggested the Red Sox's delay in pushing a financing package was understandable.

"What really happened is that they have been eclipsed by the financing crisis at the Big Dig and the problems with Harvard Pilgrim," he said. "It would appear frivolous for any of us to be talking about Fenway in the midst of that. But I hope we can all sit down in the same room and get this done this year."

Finneran agreed that resolving the "funding challenges" of the Central Artery and health care are top priorities, but he did not rule out action on the Red Sox plan in the next four months.

"While a new Fenway Park may be vital to fans or sports reporters, it is not a high priority in the lives of most taxpayers," Finneran said. "But I won't say it's unlikely that we could take it up this year."

He added: "If we can get the Central Artery problem resolved sometime in April, we will also have the House budget done by then, so it could be a season of opportunity for the Red Sox."

Critics contend the Sox may have missed an opportunity to secure public funds last year, before problems at the Big Dig and Harvard Pilgrim surfaced and when the team was basking in the afterglow of hosting the All-Star Game. But ballpark boosters argue that expecting prompt action on a bill so complicated was unrealistic. The team, they say, needed time to build support for the project, before it could even outline a public financing package.

The Red Sox have repeatedly said the project can't be built with private financing alone. Every ballpark developed in the last decade, they say, has needed substantial public investment. Critics, however, including economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College argue that such public subsidies for privately owned sports teams are not justified.

The team has been meeting with city and state officials for months, but so far has been unable to reach a consensus on who might pay for what. Citing as a model the bill passed last year to provide aid for a new Patriots stadium, Cellucci said the two parking garages included in the Red Sox plans will be crucial to repaying the public for its investment.

"In Foxborough, the state gave infrastructure money for a new stadium . . . where parking was limited to a few game days," the governor said. The Red Sox plan "includes building a couple of garages that would be used every day of the year, so I think we have an opportunity to do a deal here."

On Monday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino suggested the city may help by acquiring property to assemble the proposed 14-acre site, adjacent to the current Fenway Park.

Critics, however, question whether the ballpark project will generate enough new revenue to allow the city and state to recoup the public investment.

"With everyone claiming the same revenue streams, there isn't enough money to go around," said Rob Sargent, of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. "The public will be left holding the bill. If this project was going to pay for itself, FleetBoston and other bankers would be scrambling to invest in it."

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