PAWTUCKET – Mayor Donald R. Grebien viewed supporting the ill-fated proposal to build a brand-new Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark downtown as almost a Sisyphean chore. He and the ballpark's proponents were always pushing that boulder uphill, never quite able to reach the top before it rolled back down the hill – and occasionally rolled over them in the process.
But the recently-announced plan to construct a 7,500-seat soccer stadium, retail and restaurant space, residences, a hotel, and an indoor sports events center situated on three parcels of land on the Tidewater, Division Street, and Apex parcels? That's an entirely different task.
“Here, we started at the top,” he said. “We have the TIF (tax-increment financing) legislation, opportunity zones, a private investor willing to put in a lot. In a lot of ways, the PawSox was about keeping the PawSox and redevelopment will come. This is about redevelopment and the value that comes with it.”
“The difference really is we've started on a positive place, people recognize we lost the PawSox, we lost the development, there's that difference in climate,” he added. “We've started from a place of all of us, we need to, we must, and we have to.”
That was readily apparent inside the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Visitor Center on Monday, Dec. 2, when Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio were among the elected officials who joined Grebien and Fortuitous Partners head Brett M. Johnson to announce this once-in-a-generation proposal for Pawtucket.
This announcement, of a $400 million investment in Pawtucket’s waterfront and downtown, would be the largest economic development project in city history. The attendance of Raimondo, Mattiello, and Ruggerio was notable because it showcased the proposal already has support across all levels of government, something that was notably lacking during conversations surrounding the downtown PawSox ballpark.
The proposal is now in its final 100 days of due diligence and Grebien said “everyone's coming together” to make sure this is not an opportunity lost.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this proposal is that it features the Apex land downtown, where a PawSox ballpark was slated. Grebien said the city is having “ongoing conversations with the Apex group. They have a value they see … We're trying to come up with a fair number. I have to protect the taxpayers, we're not going to throw their money away.”
“I'm confident things are progressing as they should be, unlike with the PawSox (stadium),” he added. “We have a project, with the legislation, we have the dollars to move and make an acquisition. At the end of the day, if eminent domain has to be used, we'll use it.”
But Grebien's optimistic that eminent domain won't be necessary. After all, it jibes with his mentality to always stay positive, especially when it comes to his home city.
“I'm born and raised in Pawtucket, we're an awesome community. We're very diverse, we represent the United States in this community. The one thing I've always learned is that our leaders care. What's right for Pawtucket, what's right for the people. We have differences as a mayor and council but we all care, it's about how do we move Pawtucket forward. We have to take advantage of the opportunity that’s presented.”
“My job is to stay positive, my job is to move the city, and we came from a lot of dark days. When I came in, there was the potential of state takeover,” he said of the past. “It really becomes about management and leadership. There are days you're saying 'What the heck happened?' … It's just staying on focus and not giving up. When you're down and somebody's kicking you, do you stay down or do you get back up?”
Grebien's also confident about the finances of the plan working out. The total project budget is estimated at $400 million with an anticipated public contribution in the range of $70 million to $90 million. Combined, public contributions to the total project is approximately 20 percent of the cost.
The state component of the public contribution is estimated to be $60 million to $80 million over 30 years and the way in which these funds are derived and contributed is through the tax increment financing mechanism that the General Assembly passed into law last June.
The projects are also expected to create 2,500 direct and indirect jobs during construction and 1,200 ongoing direct jobs upon completion.
“At the end of the day, the city will have the activity, the new revenue, it's going to pay off,” he said. “In 30 years, the mayor who's sitting here, the residents here, will see an impact. That's value, that makes it a lot different.”
And that leads to the question of will Grebien be the one sitting in the mayor's office when these projects come to fruition. Over the past few weeks, particularly since the Dec. 2 announcement of the mixed-use development and soccer stadium, he's seen his profile raised on a statewide level, with many applauding him for not giving up after the PawSox announced their departure for Worcester, and wondering whether there could be a higher office in his future.
But Grebien says as long as Pawtucket's voters will continue to put their trust and support in him, he'll continue to serve the people of the city he's called home for his entire life.
“I've always wanted to be involved in government. My personal goal was to be mayor. I sit here at 52, best-case I have another 13 years until I can retire. There's so many projects coming, we have this, we have the commuter rail … I'm here for the long haul, as long as people will have me,” he said. “We're always fighting for what’s best. Hopefully it's another 13 years. I hope that people will continue to elect me. I'd love to be here for the end of the projects, but I also have to do self-reflecting. I think right now we're in a great place, the next four to six years are a great opportunity. I want to be here for that.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette
Editor's note: Part two of a two-part series.