PAWTUCKET – Mayor Donald R. Grebien posits himself as the ever-optimistic champion of his home city. But even as he basks in the glory of his city's latest, and perhaps greatest, victory – a $400 million mixed-use development that would bring a soccer stadium, residences, and retail to the city's riverfront and downtown – he's keenly aware of the trials and tribulations that led to this pivotal crossroads moment in Pawtucket history.
Sitting in his office on the second floor of City Hall, he sips on a freshly-poured cup of coffee as he reminisces about the moments that led to this day. Moments, he said, that often felt like a roller coaster ride, with its share of steady climbs and sudden drops.
“I've always held the optimism to the end,” Grebien said on Tuesday morning. “When the General Assembly passed the (PawSox) bill in June (2018), I felt that there was a lot of opportunity in that bill and a lot of flexibility.”
“We had a meeting in August (2018) with the governor, Commerce, the team, we made our presentation,” he said of the following months. “We brought the bond advisers in … We did our due diligence and made the presentation. At the very end, it wasn't enough.”
Within days, Grebien received the news he hoped would never come to the city he's called home for the entirety of his 52 years. It was a sunny August morning, when representatives from the Pawtucket Red Sox arrived at City Hall to drop off a letter in the mayor's office, confirming his darkest fears: the franchise was planning to move to Worcester, Mass.
“At that point, we get the letter that day. I was at the doctor's office, I remember Dylan (Zelazo) calling me, saying they were dropping off a letter and it was their formal process,” Grebien recalled. “Really, for the community, we'd fought so hard. Nobody likes to lose, we were devastated. We put our time and energy in. It was devastating, because we had to face the realization that we were losing the PawSox, but bigger than that … that would've been one of the biggest development opportunities.”
“I felt at that point we’d lost everything … As much as we did everything we could, we lost the PawSox,” he said. “We're sitting there, at that point Memorial (Hospital) had closed, we had other challenges. It looked as though the community was declining.”
In a moment that felt like a “bad break-up,” Grebien said he and officials took about a month to lick their wounds – a so-called “chilling-out period,” as he described it. But after striking out on retaining the PawSox, the mayor said it was time to start having honest conversations about Pawtucket's future.
“People recognized that myself, the members of the City Council, local Reps and Senators, did an amazing job to keep that ball alive...” he said. “People always felt we were all fighting for the right reasons, people always felt this was right for Pawtucket.”
With the support of Rhode Island Commerce, a request for proposals was pieced together for the future use of McCoy Stadium and downtown Pawtucket.
“If we have nothing there and it becomes vacant, you start looking at losing a lot of value,” Grebien said of the thought of an ever-empty McCoy Stadium.
After a months-long process, six prospective bidders had expressed interest in the RFP. Grebien said there were a number of factors that went into why the city received interest from both local and national bidders, among them the federal opportunity zone incentive and the tax increment financing, or TIF, approved by the General Assembly last June.
Additionally, he said, the PawSox saga brought with it a great deal of attention – both positive and negative – and people were now realizing the value that the franchise brought to Pawtucket and what was going to be lost with their departure.
When the RFP closed in April, city officials and representatives from Rhode Island Commerce began a due diligence process that led them to two “really strong proposals.” One was from Native Waters Investment, LLC of Norwich, Conn. to construct a sprawling family entertainment center and riverfront park in Pawtucket located on approximately 25 acres of land.
The other would bring a United Soccer League franchise to downtown Pawtucket, with the construction of a multi-sport stadium with ancillary and sports-related development on the riverfront and downtown. This proposal was spearheaded by investment firm Fortuitous Partners and Brown University graduate Brett M. Johnson – the co-chairman of the Phoenix Rising USL team.
“We realized this was a big opportunity, a big economic investment, it became a $400 million investment in Pawtucket, so naturally that rose to the top...” Grebien said of Fortuitous' proposal. “As Fortuitous rose, it became really exciting. We said let's put the reuse of McCoy on hold and we needed the state to take a look at the true costs to use it for any of these uses. It could be Single-A, independent league (baseball), we needed to get a good understanding.”
The reuse of McCoy Stadium has since been put to the side. Grebien said his hope is by the first quarter of 2020, more concrete information will become available on the true needs of the ballpark.
But it was at that moment when Grebien's attention – and the eyes of the state – shifted toward the $400 million plan to revitalize three parcels of land on the city's riverfront and downtown.
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette
Editor's note: Part one of a two-part series.