By Michael Gaffney
Having read multiple articles about the goings on regarding the City’s ballpark project, I thought I’d clear up a few things and make a few connections between the multiple entities being reported on.
Let’s start out with the first clarification, it is not the WooSox ballpark (or any other name chosen to trick you into believing the Red Sox own this park). It is the City of Worcester Ballpark, with all the associated fun, risk, and expense of said ballpark being the sole responsibility of the City of Worcester. Of course, the City of Worcester is an entity that simply does not exist without its residents and local businesses that pay taxes to fund it.
On November 28, 2018, the Worcester Business Journal (author unknown) reported:
“The Worcester Redevelopment Authority is seeking to amend a 2016 Urban Renewal Plan by expanding it by 21 acres to include 33 more properties. The new document calls for the possible demolition of 18 additional buildings for the project.”
They went on to report that:
“Those properties are hoped to be acquired via a purchase agreement. If that is unsuccessful, the city could try eminent domain, Augustus said.
The city’s Chief Development Officer Michael Traynor said state regulations require a list of every property within the Urban Renewal Plan’s boundaries. That doesn’t mean every property is what he called an action property.”
The report generated plenty of controversy regarding the potential forceful taking of property for the City’s ball park.
Here is where we all need to make a few connections. First, the city’s Chief Development Officer, Michael Traynor, is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority or WRA. Second, the WRA is comprised of five members, four selected by the City Manager and one from the Governor. The City Manager also selects the Chair of the WRA. The WRA is essentially just an extension of the City Manager. It is not to say that all the members of the board of the WRA are bad— Michael Angelini is on the board (he basically saved the Hanover Insurance Company) and Michael Traynor is very competent city officer, but to say that they are “independent” is simply disingenuous.
(Disclosure: While on Council, I vigorously opposed granting the City Manager the power to appoint the Chair. I have also questioned the appointment of Vincent Pedone as the Chair of the WRA due to his involvement with the play-to-play scandal as a State Representative. He was previously working for UMass, after securing them millions in funding when he was a State Representative. Further, I’ve questioned his disposition as he often engages in partisan political attacks on social media, once stating that he “could go infinitely lower than you.”)
The only property run by the WRA is Union Station. On February 12, 2017, the Worcester Herald (author unknown) reported the following information about Union Station:
- operational losses exceed $2,000,000 dollars per year
- negative cash flow is approximately $1,200,000 per year
- loans that the WRA, Worcester Redevelopment Authority, from the City of Worcester will never get paid back since the WRA is in essence the City of Worcester
- $6,250,000 project is planned for leak remediation
- $10,000 is being spent on a study to fix the flag poles
Keep in mind, the losses are paid out of the City of Worcester’s tax revenues. Union Station, the DCU Center, and the Golf Course comprise the “Enterprise Accounts,” which is a nice way of saying that they are city-owned businesses – just as the Worcester ballpark will be. Also keep in mind that the city loses money on every one of them every single year to the tune of millions each year. This does not include the additional costs of machinery and equipment used thereby, as those costs are contained in the Capital Budget as opposed to the Operating Budget or are hidden within the Excess Cash “found” at the end of every single year’s budget. If history is any indication, the ball park will join the tax drain soon and creative budgeting will be used to hide the true cost.
(Side note on the golf course – to make the taking of park land and spending over $800,000 on the driving range look more successful, the City Council demanded that the cost of the road improvements to the golf course not be included in the losses on the golf course. The rationale was that the road wasn’t part of the project and thus the costs shouldn’t be included. Of course, it would be rather difficult to get to the golf course without the road, so it’s a rather specious attempt to cook the books in favor of spending taxpayer money. Disclosure: I opposed the spending on the Enterprise Accounts at every opportunity when on Council.)
Keep in mind that the WRA’s real mission is to essentially facilitate development about the city by taking properties from private entities for purposes of redevelopment. The City Council has this power, but to avoid the political ramifications of such nasty business as parting people from their property for the “public good,” the WRA can do this as long as it is within their area of operation (the area is called the “Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan”), which is why they have to notice their intent to expand the development area and why you found out about it in the newspapers. Otherwise, you’d have never known. The WRA doesn’t have independent finances; rather, it operates by issuing bonds that are the responsibility of the City of Worcester.
Also keep in mind that the City of Worcester’s last big land-grab was the property that is now St. Vincent Hospital. At the time of the takings, there were plenty of positive news stories about Worcester becoming “Med-City,” with dreams of many projects stemming from the development that never happened. You may remember the articles about people that would be flying into Worcester, staying at hotels, using restaurants, etc., to go to the future of medicine that would be located in Worcester. None of that happened. It is not to say that St. Vincent Hospital isn’t an amazing building and a jewel downtown, but this $40.5 million project that involved the taking of property by eminent domain back in the 1990s finally broke even a couple years ago. The return on investment, considering the time value of money, is likely still negative. The estimates of the costs for the land takings by eminent domain were off by millions once the litigation was resolved. Who paid for said “bad estimates”? The taxpayers – and they are still paying (see time value of money).
On December 5, 2018, Nick Kotsopoulos with the Telegram & Gazette, reported as follows:
“The Planning Board unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday night saying that a proposed amendment to the Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan is consistent with the city’s overall planning objectives. . .
The amendment is considered a “major change” to the Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan because the boundary lines have been changed to incorporate an additional 33 parcels over 21 acres, according to Stephen Rolle, director of the city’s Division of Planning and Regulatory Services. . .
By having the seven properties located within the urban renewal area, the WRA will have the authority to acquire the seven properties through negotiated sales or eminent domain, if that should become necessary.”
The article reinforces my statements above that the WRA has to have the property designated within their authorized area, the “Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan,” in order to take property by eminent domain. It also points to another entity as if it was independent – the Planning Board. Who appoints the members of the Planning Board? Once again, it is the City Manager.
On December 5, 2018 (he had a rather busy day), Nick Kotsopoulos with the Telegram & Gazette, reported as follows:
“Jeff Fasser of the BSC Group, which prepared the proposed amendment, said it is considered a ‘major change’ to the original downtown plan because the boundary lines have changed and properties have been designated for potential acquisition.
WRA board member Michel Angelini said he would have liked to see the details of the proposed amendment, as well as the listing of properties designated for acquisition, run by the board in advance so there could have been public discussion.
He said the details caught many people by surprise, leading them to draw conclusions beyond what they should have concluded.
‘I urge us in the future to be transparent about this,’ Mr. Angelini said.
Mr. Traynor said this situation was ‘a little out of the ordinary’ because the WRA could not make public any of the details of the plan until the city had reached an agreement with the PawSox.”
It certainly appears that Michael Angelini isn’t happy about the way things were presented. But, here we have yet another entity, the BSC Group. The BSC Group are consultants out of Boston, hired by the City Manager. Interestingly, on their website, the BSC Group posted an article they wrote on November 30, 2018 stating “The extended boundary area of the URP encompasses more than 30 properties and 21-acres of land.”
All of this makes the following statements by the City Manager seem a bit less than truthful:
On November 29, 2018, Nick Kotsopoulos with the Telegram & Gazette, reported as follows:
“The city is scaling back the scope of the proposed amendment to its Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan it has filed with the state, so it only includes those properties considered necessary for the ballpark project in the Canal District/Kelley Square area. . .
But the scope of the proposed amendment caught city councilors and others off guard, with some fearing that it would lead to widespread land-takings and the demolition of several buildings.
City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said that was never the intent.
He told the City Council Tuesday night that the city has no plans to acquire any property other than those properties that have previously been identified for the purposes of the ballpark.
‘It’s unfortunate that the MEPA filing did not allow adequate time for the city to engage the public in this process and did not afford our residents and business owners an opportunity to review and respond to the amendment,’ Mr. Augustus said in a statement issued Thursday.
To address those concerns, Mr. Augustus said the city will modify the proposed amendment to the Urban Revitalization Plan, as well as the MEPA filing, to include only those properties that are essential to the ballpark project at this time.
He said the WRA board and the City Council will be presented with the properties that are required to move the ballpark construction forward, along with some vacant land immediately adjacent to the ballpark site.
‘We want to be deliberate and transparent throughout the process,” Mr. Augustus said. “We will continue to have community discussions and public input to future proposed amendments to the Urban Revitalization Plan in order to spotlight properties for development opportunities and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.'”
The City Manager claims he didn’t have “time for the city to engage the public” and “we want to be deliberate and transparent throughout the process,” yet he oversees, appoints and controls every single board and entity that is involved in the process. Of course he knew! Clearly, the plan was developed long before November 28, 2018.
The numerous entities are just a shell-game to create the appearance of review and oversight. They give the public the appearance of some form of democracy in action, but they are really just an extension of the City Manager’s office. There is no real review going on here and the additional properties are going to be taken unless there is public opposition. The amount of risk versus reward on this project is untenable. Private industry would never consider this project, hence the Red Sox organization isn’t actually building a ballpark, the City of Worcester is. But, when your City Manager is a politician with no experience outside of government or nonprofit with total control of every entity overseeing the “project” the result is not good for the City of Worcester, its residents, or its small businesses.