The WooSox are off and running at Polar Park (Photo: Louriann Mardo-Zayat)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
WORCESTER – As Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker bounced from one group of hand-shakers and back-slappers to another Tuesday afternoon, a welcome smile always seemed to pierce his lips.
The Governor was doing his thing at spanking new Polar Park, now the home of Triple A baseball in New England. He came to congratulate the Worcester Red Sox front office, the workers who constructed the $118 million palace and an over-joyed populous that was clearly bursting with civic pride.
Why even Mr. Basketball himself, The Cooz, welcomed the crowd.
But back to Baker. At one point he came across a few of the WooSox happy owners, several of whom own Rhode Island ties. Without missing a beat the Governor thanked them and was overheard saying `what a gift to Worcester.’
A Gift. That’s for sure.
It’s hard to come away from a visit to Polar Park and not think of the missed opportunities a new stadium could have delivered to downtown Providence or Pawtucket. Plans to do so were proposed, shot down, propped back up, scoffed at, spit on and, ultimately, died.
While Worcester unveiled its shiny, new stadium and vision for a downtown revitalization, here’s what’s up back in Little Rhody. That spot in Providence where baseballs could have flown into the Providence River still sits empty. The state did build a $22 million pedestrian bridge that would’ve taken fans into the park’s front doors but last time I checked bridges to nowhere bring in zero tax dollars. And up in poor Pawtucket the city is still warring with the owners of a dilapidated old Apex building instead of polishing a new Ballpark at Slater Mill.
But that’s all yesterday’s news. While the PawSox and politicians at the Rhode Island State House couldn’t trust each other and come up with a deal for a new ballpark, the team found a willing dance partner 45 minutes north on Route 146. The results were on display on this beautiful, sun-sparkled day.
Only a few thousand fans were allowed inside due to Massachusetts public gathering restrictions but you didn’t have to be some great baseball/economic sage to see the future. I’ve been through Worcester over the years, mostly at the old DCU Center (Centrum), and rarely been impressed. That’s why this project is such a home run for the city. You look to left field and see the footings of a future office tower with a view to die for. Look outside the front door and a parking garage and student housing buildings are taking shape. A biotech lab is also on the drawing board.
Sure, Polar Park’s right field deck packed with craft beer offerings and `mini-Monster seating’ is cool, but this project is more about what will eventually rise outside the ballpark in the Canal District as much as the shiny, new toys inside.
“The ballpark is going to cost about $118 million and a lot of that was land acquisition and remediation,” principal owner Larry Lucchino said on the 401 Podcast. “But that will allow the economic and real estate catalyst the City was hoping for.”
New buildings containing businesses and housing packed with renters lead to happy restaurateurs and bar owners. Right now the strip along Green Street just outside the right field wall owns a few spots where WooSox fans will surely congregate for a pre or post-game cocktail. They better elevate their game because healthy competition – and even more tax dollars – is surely on the way.
This type of vision wasn’t on display in Rhode Island. The PawSox were the team everyone knew, the one with the old ballpark where kids fished for autographs and one of the coolest things was the free parking. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t prime any tax revenue pumps.
Lucchino and the PawSox longed for an upgrade and thought they had an agreement in place for a ballpark in downtown Pawtucket. That deal would’ve called for the largest investment by an ownership in all of minor league baseball but in June of 2018 House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello balked and asked for even more from ownership. He claimed voters back in his Cranston district were against million dollar handouts to fat cats.
Well they were also, ultimately, against him. Two years later Mattiello was voted out of office by those same constituents he claimed to know so well.
Worcester, meanwhile, couldn’t disagree with Rhode Island’s naysayers more. They feel they received a steal, a gift, in the WooSox.
“It’s really better than I expected,” Edward Augustus, Worcester’s City Manager, told the Telegram & Gazette. “The most rewarding thing is when people come inside, then they see it, and watching their faces and watching their reactions. That’s worth everything…the sense of pride. They can’t believe what it looks like. They can’t believe how beautiful it is. When you’re in a job like mine, the gift you can give to people is pride in their city — this is my town. This is my city.”
Back in March the team announced it needed to create a waiting list after securing commitments for all of its 2,100 season tickets. That’s something, especially to those Rhode Islanders who claimed that baseball was a dying sport. Tickets at Polar start at $8 but if you want a first-class experience it’s available. A $40 ticket gets you the best box seat in the house or a spot in the DCU Club seating above home plate. Those tickets are going fast.
As I left Polar Park and made the 40-minute drive back to Providence Tuesday, the `we coulda’ done this’ feeling was actually gone. Instead I felt happy for the people of Worcester, the baseball fans who will happily pay to park, pay $21 for a field box and pay $8 for a beer. They aren’t squawking. They’re celebrating.
“The people working on this project are people with broad experience,” Lucchino said. “Our opportunity to build something first class and exceptional for the people of Worcester is what they asked for. It helps cap off an ongoing renaissance in the city.”
As a Rhode Islander, I’ll always pull for development and the injection of new ideas and business in places like Pawtucket. Right now there is a dream of a soccer stadium and some housing along the Blackstone River. The money the state and city are directing towards that development (about $40 million) is near what the PawSox asked for. But instead of Triple A baseball and visits from Pedro Martinez and Jim Rice we will hopefully see a team in the United Soccer League one day.
Put me down as a No-Show. Forever.