LOS ANGELES – Rhode Island FC’s Brett Johnson is showing me around his office in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood here on a sunny Thursday in May. It is decorated with emblems of Johnson’s involvement in sports – a Phoenix Rising FC flag, a kit from the English club Ipswich Town FC. Photos from Johnson’s time rowing for Brown University are displayed prominently.
Johnson has agreed to speak for the first time since news emerged about the financial difficulties of the Tidewater Landing soccer stadium he is building across the country in Pawtucket. But first, he wants to show me a video on his laptop.
Earlier in the day the lower-league English soccer club Sheffield Wednesday erased a four-goal deficit with an injury time equalizer to force extra time against Peterborough United, whereupon they went down a goal again, and then came back again to force penalties, which they won. Stoppage time drama.
It was unbelievable. To Johnson, it was also symbolic of soccer’s thrilling drama.
It also served as a tidy metaphor: Johnson is trying to erase something like a four-goal deficit right now in Pawtucket as his company, Fortuitous Partners, tries to come up with the money they need to finish the Tidewater Landing project. Some of them have been own-goals: Johnson and Fortuitous have repeatedly missed and pushed back deadlines on the project. Meanwhile critics have seized on aspects of Johnson’s business background and his own past statements to make the case that Johnson wasn’t the right man for the job after all.
Johnson says they’ll get it done, no matter what the critics say.
“I am very confident that this project is going to transform Rhode Island,” Johnson said. “And I’m very proud of that. But I will tell you, it’s amazing to me – there’s a certainly incredible amount of people that seem to do everything possible to hold Rhode Island back.”
What went wrong, broadly: A private lender started changing the terms of a major loan for the project. They were looking for a way out, he said. The loan eventually fell apart. Meanwhile, Johnson also had to raise about $50 million, and was only $2 million or $3 million away, but some investors pulled back as bank collapses sent jitters through the economy. Now the gap for raising equity is about $10 million, he said. Because he didn’t have his equity lined up, the city couldn’t issue the public borrowing for the stadium. An optimist would note Johnson’s confidence that this will get resolved. A pessimist would note we’ve been hearing those assurances for some time now, and the gap is even bigger than previously known.
How he’s going to fix it, broadly: He already has a new lender lined up for the private loan. There is also the possibility of bringing in a big real estate developer that might want to partner on the later phases of the project, like housing, while helping finish the fundraising for the stadium and soccer team.
He has an estimate for when this four-goal disadvantage will be erased: By the end of June, give or take, to raise the private money and then close on the private and public borrowing.
Stoppage time drama, in other words.
“There’s no retreat on this,” Johnson said. “There’s no, ‘Well, that was fun, but I just couldn’t get the $50 million.’ I will absolutely raise the $50 million.”
Johnson’s involvement in Pawtucket soccer started, of all places, in Westerly’s Watch Hill. In 2018, he was visiting for the summer — his wife is from Connecticut — when he happened to bump into a friend who mentioned going to a fundraiser for then-Governor Gina Raimondo. Raimondo had just received some bad news: The PawSox were leaving for Worcester.
Johnson already owned an Arizona-based team in the second-tier United Soccer League. Soon after the encounter in Watch Hill, he acquired the rights to bring a team to Rhode Island. When the state put out a request for proposals to fill the void the PawSox had left, Johnson came forward with a USL soccer stadium, with other amenities like housing and other development on either side of the Seekonk River.
The state picked him. The deal eventually included a public financing package from the city and state: $46.2 million in taxpayer-backed borrowing and tax credits. The borrowing would be paid back through tax revenues generated in a broad swath of Pawtucket. This, the state emphasized in February 2021, would go to some of the public infrastructure around the stadium, not the stadium itself.
Everyone probably knows or can at least guess what happened next.
COVID-19 hit, Gina Raimondo went to Washington, the cost of everything went up – including the stadium, soaring to $124 million by 2022. In July 2022, Rhode Island Commerce decided to shift the public’s financing to building the stadium itself.
It would be the most expensive stadium in USL history, and according to projections it wouldn’t pay for itself, but work began anyway and is ongoing. And it didn’t stop when Johnson was quietly losing hold on some of his financing, or when the city of Pawtucket delayed issuing the public’s financing because of that.
It is being funded by what all parties say is the private money raised so far. Indeed, the public bond proceeds won’t flow to the developer until it gets a certificate of occupancy. Johnson himself has invested $4 million into the project, he said. The team, now called Rhode Island FC, has hired a coach, a president, and others.
But this team won’t play at Tidewater Landing until 2025, Johnson acknowledged. The team will still kick off in the 2024 USL season, but in a to-be-announced temporary home. And details about the non-stadium phases of the project, like housing, which were supposed to emerge by the end of April, are still unknown.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s other business ventures have come under increased scrutiny.
Phoenix Rising, for example, has found success on the pitch, but it is not profitable, he acknowledged. It has a path to get there, he said. In January 2021, that team floated the possibility of a $350 million MLS-ready stadium to potential investors. That stadium development hasn’t happened, although another team owner said that was due to factors beyond its control having to do with changes in its host community. Its modular stadium is now in Phoenix.
Although Johnson says in his Twitter bio that he’s a director of the English club Ipswich Town FC, he is actually on the board of the majority owner of Ipswich which helps guide the club’s direction, not the club itself; he told me he owns about 1 percent of the club. The club isn’t profitable, he said, but it got promoted to England’s second tier this season.
“I continue to put up big wins on the scoreboard,” he said.
Johnson also once said in an interview that he owned six soccer clubs. At the time he actually had an ownership interest in five, he said, and had an option to buy into a sixth that he didn’t follow through on.
The discrepancies between his claims and his track record are drawing criticism back in Rhode Island.
“In my opinion, the body of evidence should raise eyebrows and raise concerns, and more due diligence should have been done by Commerce Rhode Island and the city of Pawtucket on behalf of Rhode Island taxpayers,” said Stephen Griffin, a Barrington resident who’s been a vocal critic on Twitter.
Some of the questions about Johnson are more about what he hasn’t done.
Johnson has never tackled anything of the magnitude of the Tidewater Landing project – never built a full-scale soccer stadium, or led the development of a major housing and commercial project. His business background has included the computer accessory brand Targus, which his father helped build, and stops at similar businesses. He’s also been involved in the investment world; according to some people who have observed his work from close up, some of this experience has more to do with marshaling other people’s investments than with committing significant portions of his own capital.
Johnson, for his part, acknowledges he’s not a developer. And asked about his investment experience, he said his strength is having a vision and bringing together a good team to execute on it.
As for some of the things he has done: One company he worked for, the education technology firm Greenwood & Hall, later had its assets acquired by a competitor. That happened a few years after he’d left, and he said he didn’t keep up on news about it. But it was already gone when he mentioned it – in the present tense – to Commerce RI in his bio.
He worked for Zealot Networks, a digital media company. The company now seems to have a different name and its current status is hard to pin down. Johnson often notes that Zealot’s founder sold a previous company, which he wasn’t involved with, to Disney. One person grumbled to the publication Digiday that “when you started to poke around, it was obvious there wasn’t much there.”
Then there’s Glytch. A news release in March 2021 said that Johnson had acquired the e-sports venue company. That acquisition never happened, nor did the LA venue it had broken ground on.
Johnson said he pulled out of the investment after due diligence, but shouldn’t have signed off on the premature news release.
Should people be concerned about a pattern of overstatements?
“I guess it’s my entrepreneurial optimism,” Johnson said. “I guess I’m guilty as charged.”
Some critics have also seized on the business dealings of Brett’s identical twin brother Grant. A film development deal gone wrong, a company that the federal government would later a pyramid scheme, and a South African coffee company have all come under scrutiny.
Brett Johnson wasn’t personally involved in any of those entities, both brothers said. They co-founded a company called Benevolent Capital in 2005, but Grant is now described as a “founder emeritus,” with Brett solely operating it.
“My twin brother has made some mistakes which I had nothing to do with,” Brett Johnson said.
Brett and Grant Johnson both say that Grant was not involved in Tidewater Landing.
Taken together, though, critics like Griffin see a troubling pattern. Griffin — no stranger to scrutinizing sports-related ventures — said he’s reviewed records showing that Johnson is taking what he considers a disproportionate ownership stake in the project compared to his actual investment, and generous development fees.
The city of Pawtucket says the development fees are to build public amenities in the project, not the stadium. Mike Raia, a spokesman for Fortuitous Partners,said the fees are on the lower end of the typical range of 3 to 5 percent.
Johnson has vocal detractors, to be sure, but he also has supporters.
“He’s a man of high integrity,” said Richard Perl, the chief administrative officer of TerraCycle, a company that Johnson personally invested in.
“He’s amazing,” said Tim Riester, another owner of Phoenix Rising.
As development continues at the Tidewater site in Pawtucket, it’s not clear how much the praise or criticism will make a difference at this late date. Commerce could have known about Johnson’s other business dealings years ago; they vetted him extensively, he said. Then they approved the stadium multiple times. It’s under construction.
And, Johnson says, he’s going to fix the financing gap for it, then someday get to the rest of the project.
Just a few more weeks of stoppage time.
“We’re going to open up a brilliant stadium,” Johnson said, “and you and I will be standing there opening night, and you’re gonna sit there and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’”