Reworked Tidewater financing plan narrowly approved, with McKee as tiebreaker

RI COMMERCE CORP. on Monday narrowly approved a revised public funding plan for the Tidewater Landing project in Pawtucket. Pictured is a view of the football stadium that anchors the project. / THANKS TO HAPPY PARTNERS

PROVISION – After a two-part vote Monday sent the reworked funding plan for Pawtucket’s football stadium project into sudden death, Governor Daniel J. McKee stepped in to score the winning kick.

McKee cast the casting vote in a RI Commerce Corp. board meeting Monday, allowing the Tidewater Landing project to move forward with a reworked public funding agreement. As chairman of the board, McKee does not vote except to break a tie.

The agreement aims to help developer Fortuitous Partners cover unexpected price increases in the 10,000-seat football stadium that anchors the project. To do that, the state will funnel nearly all of the already-approved $27 million in government bonds to pay for the stadium, earmarking just $1.5 million for later phases of public infrastructure in the project.

Another $19 million in city funds — a combination of bonds and property tax revenue — plus private financing from the developer will cover the remainder of what is now a $124 million stadium.

The agreement appears nearly identical to what McKee presented to RI Commerce in June, to which board members responded with a fit of concern.

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A few differences between then and now: the $1.5 million set aside for later parts of the project, including housing, retail and public infrastructure.

Existing office space will also be exchanged for 80-100 additional homes, on top of the 435 units already in the project plans.

PLANS FOR THE development of the MIXED-USE FOOTBALL STADIUM, known as Tidewater Landing, will include a 10,000-seat football stadium, residential, retail and commercial space, with a river path connecting the two properties on either side of the Seekonk River in Pawtucket. / THANKS TO HAPPY PARTNERS

New protections around state funding ensure that the state does not face cost overruns, while the United Soccer League team must remain on Pawtucket’s team for 30 years, or else pay the state back to leave early. A PowerPoint presentation from RI Commerce shared at the meeting also mentioned other “cures for the developer’s failure to meet such benchmarks,” although those options were not described in detail.

These adjustments did not initially seem to appease board members, who echoed many of the same concerns expressed at the June meeting.

Chief among them, what happens if there isn’t enough money left to get the rest of the project — the most economically important part for the state — built?

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“Than what?” asked Bernard Buonanno, board member. “That’s the question we’re grappling with.”

And the alternative, a stadium with nothing else, was hard to swallow.

“Somewhat aggressive but achievable” is how CSL Consulting, the Burlington, Massachusetts-based consultant hired to analyze the project, described the financial return on investment for the stadium.

“If I had $50 million, I wouldn’t put it in a deal that was somewhat aggressive but achievable,” said board member Michael McNally. “I think that’s reckless.”

Other key details about the project — an updated final cost, plans to solicit more government funding in the next legislative session, the workforce or affordable housing, or a timeline — received the same, equally unsatisfactory response: we don’t know.

How those uncertainties were resolved was not immediately clear, but after a closed-door meeting, members narrowly approved the updated funding plan by 6-5 votes, with McKee casting the casting vote. McNally, Buonanno, Mary Jo Kaplan, Donna Sams and Vanessa Toledo-Vickers voted against the deal. Two members – Karl Wadensten and William Stone – abstained.

In a brief statement following the decision, Brett Johnson, director of Fortuitous Partners, called it “an important milestone” and promised a groundbreaking event would take place “soon”.

McKee remained optimistic about the project, despite nearly half of the board voting against the deal.

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“I’m not worried,” he said. “People disagree.”

Asked about the possibility that only the stadium will be built — and string the state on to repay the millions of dollars borrowed — McKee replied, “I’m not thinking about that.”

The original mixed-use development required 435 residential units, along with retail and commercial space, an open-air events plaza, and a riverwalk connecting the two sides of the Seekonk River.

The project is expected to create 474 direct construction jobs and 162 permanent jobs, and generate $37 million in state tax revenue over the next 30 years, according to a CSL analysis shared Monday.

In addition to the $36.2 million in city and state funding already approved, RI Commerce has approved $10 million in net state tax credits for the project.

(Update: quote clarified in 14th paragraph)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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