WORCESTER — Behind its industrial-warehouse facade of leisure-blue corrugated steel, brand-new Polar Park, with its deep-blue seating bowl and emerald playing field built into a Canal District hillside, is essentially ready for its May 11 Opening Day.
But there’s more than a baseball-stadium construction tale to be told about the Red Sox Triple A affiliate’s move to Worcester after 51 seasons in Pawtucket, R.I.
In assuming over half the construction cost of the $159-million-plus ballpark, the City of Worcester was also placing a bet on itself.
Around the ballpark sit more than a half-dozen parcels of land currently swarming with backhoes, tractors, excavators, and hard-hatted, orange-vested construction workers.
These sites will take months, even years, to be fully developed, but the tax revenue and bond sales stemming from plans for housing, a hotel, a parking lot, a lab, and retail and office space hold the key to why Worcester forged a business as well as a civic partnership with the WooSox.
“This area will pay for the park itself — the funding we put forward — from all the revenues of the projects,” said Worcester’s mayor, Joseph Petty, during a tour of the ballpark this week. “Another part is people are coming here, or at least inquiring, businesses and developers who probably otherwise wouldn’t come if it wasn’t for the brand of the Red Sox.
“We’re still going strong here in the city, but this has brought us to a new level.”
In general, publicly funded stadiums have been more favorable deals for the team they are built for than the taxpayers funding the municipality’s outlay.
As lessees of Polar Park for the next 30 years, the WooSox will reap nearly all of the revenue from tickets, concessions, advertising, broadcasting rights, and merchandise. The team is responsible for most operating costs.
According to City of Worcester figures, the city was responsible for 55 percent, or about $88 million, of the stadium’s price tag, with the WooSox paying nearly $61 million (38 percent) and the state and federal governments picking up the balance.
Both the city and the team pegged the total construction and design costs at approximately $118 million. The $159.5 million total cost, according to the city, includes $41.3 million for land acquisition.
Larry Lucchino, chairman of the board of the WooSox and president/CEO emeritus of the Red Sox, previously spearheaded the construction or renovation of four other ballparks: Camden Yards in Baltimore, Petco Park in San Diego, Fenway Park, and JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla.
Polar Park posed a challenge of a new order.
“This is my fifth ballpark, and this was probably the hardest, the most difficult, with the most people participating in the process and with the least money, so it was a very challenging undertaking,” said Lucchino. “We have a bunch of partners and collaborators, and that may be good long-term because a lot of different voices have to be heard.”
The cost of the ballpark rose 58 percent between 2018 and today, thanks to a seven-week COVID-19 construction shutdown last spring, design changes, and rising construction costs. And while the city says it and the team essentially split the overrun — the WooSox picked up $24.6 million, the city $23.4 million — it still meant a hefty increase for the city.
Little wonder, then, that when the first cry of “Play ball!” is heard next month, civic leaders will have their eyes focused on the development horizon outside the ballpark, where those ancillary projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.
“We’ve been able to attract a fair amount of development because of the ballpark, and that is going to help us pay for our share of the ballpark,” said Worcester’s city manager, Ed Augustus, who is credited by both Petty and the WooSox as being instrumental in crafting the complex business and development arrangements for the public and private entities to work together.
“We created a DIF [District Improvement Financing] district to capture the revenue from retail and these properties and a new incremental increase in taxable value to fund that, as well as some of the parking we have.
“Those two sources are the way we’re paying for our piece of it. The conservative projections have it netting out at the end of 30 years for the bonding to be positive by $20 million-$25 million.”
Augustus said that economic forecast was made before two other parcels became part of the project, including the relocation of the 4-acre Table Talk company’s site directly adjacent to the right-field side of the ballpark. That development plus another, said Augustus, means “we’re expecting that [$20 million-$25 million] figure to become more robust through the years.”
Last year, a Bloomberg analysis ranked Worcester eighth among US cities poised for an economic recovery after the COVID-19 recession eases. The city, Massachusetts’s second-largest in population, was ranked second behind Boston in New England.
In the near term, the ball club, which has approximately 45 full-time front-office members, said it will be hiring 150-200 seasonal workers, with the stadium’s catering and concessions operation hiring about 125 employees.
“The more development you have around, the more jobs it brings here and people working at the ballpark,” said Petty. “It generates interest in Worcester, and it brings us to another level, nationally, in recognition.
“To me, it’s worth every penny.”