We have the biggest monument to bad ideas

Polar Park is now the most expensive minor league ballpark ever made we did it folks

Gimme a failed! “FAILED!” Gimme a state! “STATE!”

Sorta weird to watch the collapse in real time, isn’t it? You just go about your day and do your silly little tasks and take part in your silly little pleasures while far off in the distance somewhere there’s a constant humming noise and it’s easy to tune out when you’re busy but not when you’re quiet and everything is still. In those moments the humming grows louder and louder and it’s all you can think about. It’s a problem you can’t fix. Pointing to it only makes it worse. You shift between thrashing and acquiescence until your brain is tired and all you can say is ah, oh well. 

Know what I mean?

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But this is a newsletter about Worcester so enough about that. Here in Worcester we got enough problems, like the fact that we just recently received the honor of having the single most expensive minor league baseball stadium in the entire country. Stupid games, stupid prizes!

Covid-related cost overruns and cost overruns of the more foreseeable variety have put the $157 million Polar Park ahead of a $153 million stadium for the Las Vegas Aviators and a college ballpark in Nebraska which is twice the size of Polar Park but nevertheless cost just $155 million (both adjusted for inflation), per the Worcester Business Journal. And it’s not even done yet. Who knows how much the final price tag will be but I do know that there’s black mold in our school buildings and we somehow never have enough money for textbooks. 

This project was initially sold to us with a price tag of $101 million, which was already outrageous. Against the advice of all economists except the one who put the deal together, and despite deep skepticism from national press outlets, City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. rammed the deal past a subservient and deferential City Council while being cheered by a downright jingoistic local press and old townies who somehow have not learned by now that mega-projects in urban centers don’t work. I’d put Worcester’s track record on this up against any city in the nation pound-for-pound.

This project was sold to us with the ludicrous line that it will “pay for itself.” Projected tax revenue from an arbitrary “district” drawn around the stadium will pay for the stadium loan, the thinking goes, as will parking fees and other ways of nickel-and-diming the customer. And the City Council loved that, they went oh gosh that’s so brilliant, we can get this big shiny park and it’s free!

I like this bit from Welker’s piece a lot.

There is nearly unanimity among sports economists that publicly financed stadiums are unwise decisions, and that municipalities are often at a major disadvantage with teams when it comes to negotiating financial terms. Augustus and other city officials have remained steadfast that the project will pay for itself with tax revenues from a special tax district on development surrounding the stadium, along with a few other revenue streams, such as parking fees.

In a memo sent to City Councilors Friday Augustus indicates he’ll be seeking authorization to take out yet another loan for $14 million—we’re taking the loan out but the team is going to pay it, he says, begging the obvious question of why don’t they just take out their own damn loan, then? But no, the WooSox are going to pay back the loan by charging their fans more money. Now, instead of a $1 service fee on each ticket, there will be a $2 service fee. So they’re passing off the risk to the city and the cost to the city’s residents, which is cool. These guys have a lot of money which is important to remember. It’s also important to remember Rhode Island wasn’t willing to give them any more than about $38 million, and to lure them here we more than doubled the offer for reasons that have gone for the most part unexamined.

I think it’s important to step back and ask the question why are we even involved in the business of building a ballpark at all? Why couldn’t the PawSox buy their own plot of land and build their own ballpark here if they really think Worcester’s so special, so “on the rise”? A cynical observer of city government would scoff at the question. That’s just the way things work. If we didn’t do it, every other city and town is going to do it, so we have to do it. That’s just economic development. The function of city government is to attract and incentivize private development. Development equals more taxes, duh. More taxes, more services. 

But really it’s development for its own sake while services remain austere. All the new growth brought on by this project is, by design, going back to paying off the loans we took out to do the project. At the onset economists hired by the city projected the ballpark would eventually “turn a profit” as in we would start actually making money off the property taxes of the surrounding developments, but now the project is significantly more expensive, so… By the time the loan is paid off, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we’ll be talking about what to do with the empty abandoned ballpark downtown. In a few years time, it’s not unlikely the City Council will be arguing about which services to cut to make the loan payment. If we owe, say, $3 million that year, and we get our contractually obligated $1 million rent payment from the WooSox, but our special tax zone only produces $1.5 million, we still owe the $500,000 and lets just say the easiest place to find $500,000 will probably be the schools (we all know it’s actually in the Police Department but that’s a different story). It’s a zero sum game and I think Augustus and Petty know that—I mean they’re not dumb. But they’ll be out of office well before the problems inherent in this deal manifest themselves and for now they are the poster boys of Worcester’s great turnaround story.

We could be a city that allows urban density and vibrancy to accrue naturally, that fosters the growth of neighborhoods that are already taking off and supports its small businesses and does what it can to not get in the way of things too much. We could have an administration that does all that. But what we have, and have had for decades really, is an administration that deals direct with big money developers to get the next big score that’s going to turn the city’s fortunes around. Med City, the Galleria, the DCU Center, CitySquare, etc. We’re always bargaining from the position of “we desperately need this” and never “why do we need you.” Larry Lucchino could probably smell the inferiority complex like blood in the water and he absolutely abused it.

In Augustus’ memo, he outlines two new developments which will be inside the district where all the tax revenue goes back toward the ballpark loan. One is for 80 units of affordable housing which might be a good thing if they really mean affordable but the developer could just be saying that. The other development will be market rate housing and retail. Market rate, of course, means nothing you can afford unless you’re moving here from Newton. 

“Both of these private projects exemplify the return on public investment of Polar Park,” Augustus wrote in the memo. 

What return, exactly? All of the money we make off those buildings is going back toward the loan. He even says it in so many words. “The new taxes generated from these two projects will diversify revenue streams within the DIF district and the city’s overall debt service obligation for its contribution to the Polar Park construction cost.”

Translation: These two developments will help us pay back the loan. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the affordable housing development is just the first phase of a multi-phase development, and you know what the second phase is? You guessed it. Market rate housing. So that’s a wash in terms of stabilizing rents in the area. Overall, the rent is going to get outrageous over there to the benefit of no one who was there before all of this. Ask the small businesses around Kelley Square and the people living in Green Island if they’d like their rent to go up. I bet they don’t.

So what we have here is development for its own sake but we’re pretty sure it’s going to cover the massive loan we took out to “incentivize” it. Said development does nothing for the people already around it but make it harder for them to live there or do business there. Said development will not meaningfully contribute to the tax base we use to pay for schools and roads and social services which is ostensibly the reason to “incentivize” it in the first place. While it should get more people into the area and they will maybe hypothetically spend money at some of the nearby businesses, it’s entirely possible if not probable that this large development which is dependent on many thousands of cars arriving and leaving at the same time will have a choking effect on the neighborhood. Businesses that have thrived off the natural growth of urban density around Green Street and Millbury Street will be faced with an entirely different and incongruent pattern of activity and who’s to say all those baseball fans will even explore the neighborhood when they could just go to the Tavern In The Square they’re probably going to put in across the street. And don’t even get me started on the jobs argument. Please.

So who wins? The developers, duh. And we’re stuck with the bragging rights of being the city that was hoodwinked into building the most expensive minor league baseball park in the country so the mayor and the city manager and all the city councilors could walk down a red carpet in Red Sox jerseys and shake hands with Pedro Martinez. 

When this goes to City Council on Tuesday it’s going to be all “aw shucks what can you do” and Larry Lucchino will be watching on from a hot tub somewhere laughing at us. 

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I want to give a shout-out to Grant Welker and the Worcester Business Journal for being the only outlet around here willing to thoughtfully examine this project. They’ve done the best reporting on Polar Park, bar none. Not that the competition is too stiff. The Telegram wouldn’t dare cross Tim Murray to say a bad thing about the project, and MassLive can’t even get the numbers right. In their write-up they said the “new projected cost of the stadium is $104 million” which—we’re all reading the same memo here—is just flatly wrong as you will see below. 

Yeah, it’s $104 million if you don’t count this other $12 million in costs on the balance sheet or that other inconvenient $41 million which is not on the balance sheet for some strange reason. Good grief. I mean, I get the reporter was probably just rushing to rehash the memo, but it would be nice if our second largest media outlet here in this city took examining the financials of this deal a bit more seriously. 

I know there are plenty of local connections to the testicle-tasing convention down in Washington this week. I haven’t written about them and I probably won’t. My thoughts on this are complicated in a way I don’t feel entirely comfortable expressing what with the discourse the way it is right now. I will say for now that I’m happy they didn’t Do The Coup but I’m also certain they weren’t anywhere near prepared for what that would actually entail and that now we have a very convenient excuse to further criminalize political dissent, which it looks like is exactly what Joe Biden wants to do.

That’s all for tonight folks. Please consider subscribing if you haven’t already and if you have thank you so much I love you. 

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