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Specter of 38 Studios looms over PawSox stadium proposal

August 23, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — As the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox make their case for their push to move the team to Providence, one name comes up over and over: 38 Studios. The shadow of the bad video game company deal has loomed over the stadium proposal for the Boston Red Sox’ triple-A affiliate. Some opponents have even dubbed it “38 Stadium.”

The failed $75 million state loan guarantee for the company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling has been raised by opponents of the move. It is brought up repeatedly at public meetings hosted by the PawSox to push the idea: At a recent event, an audience member simply blurted out, “38 Studios” and waited for a response.

The PawSox say it’s unfair to compare the two. But they acknowledge 38 Studios has clouded the debate as they try to sell their idea to the public and lawmakers.

“Voters still have a 38 Studios headache, and it’s going to take more time to clear it up,” Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, said.

The proposed stadium has nothing to do with 38 Studios. They’re separate projects, being pitched by different people.

The new owners of the PawSox, headed by Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, want to build the stadium on prime state-owned riverfront land that was opened up after relocating Interstate 195 and has been planned as a public park.

The team’s original proposal, asking for $120 million in state subsidies and a property tax abatement, died after it met with strenuous public opposition. The owners have been meeting behind closed doors with Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to hammer out a new one, which has not yet been released.

The 38 Studios deal involved a state loan guarantee. The quasi-public Economic Development Corp., now the Rhode Island Commerce Corp., granted it to 38 Studios in 2010 to lure the company to Rhode Island from Massachusetts. State officials said at the time the deal would be a boon for the economically ailing state.

Less than two years later, the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers on the hook for as much as $100 million — money the state will still be paying back for years. The failed venture is now widely criticized as a backroom deal pushed through with little public input.

Patti Doyle, a spokeswoman for the PawSox, said the proposed stadium, unlike 38 Studios, offers tangible benefit to the public, including jobs and economic growth.

“The economy in general will have a benefit from this ballpark,” she said.

But lawmakers and the public alike point to similarities. They both involve a private company and public resources. 38 Studios was run by a celebrity former Red Sox pitcher; the PawSox are owned by a group of investors led by the Red Sox president.

At weekly “listening tour” forums hosted by the PawSox, Rhode Islanders have been asking pointed questions and 38 Studios inevitably comes up.

At an event in Barrington, PawSox spokeswoman Cyd McKenna told the audience there’s no comparison: 38 Studios was led by an inexperienced businessman, whereas Lucchino has built beautiful, successful ballparks in San Diego and elsewhere.

But Sharon Steele, a Providence resident who has spearheaded a campaign to block the stadium, said 38 Studios has become a cautionary tale about taxpayers being railroaded by lawmakers.

“The lawmakers are making private deals,” Steele said. “They are doing all of this under cover in the dark of night.”

On Thursday, former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, founder of advocacy group WatchDogRI, called on Raimondo and Mattiello to disclose the latest proposed terms of the stadium deal, comparing the private negotiations to the circumstances around 38 Studios.

Rep. Michael Morin, a Democrat from Woonsocket, said he’s open to the move as long as the deal is fair to taxpayers.

“I think it’s different, but I can see where the taxpayers have a bad taste in their mouth,” he said. “I totally get that, and that’s our fault.”

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