Will The New England Patriots Run All The Way To Providence?

Boston is in an uproar as the team threatens to bolt

Few cities have had an image as badly tarnished as that of Providence. In the 1980s, with one of America's most derelict downtowns, "this was a city on its way to ultimate doom," recalls Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. In 1984, the mayor contributed to the image problem when he was ousted after assaulting a man for seeing his former wife.

But since then, Providence and Cianci, reelected in 1990, have staged an astonishing comeback. And now, Providence is on the verge of stealing the New England Patriots away from mighty Massachusetts. City and Rhode Island officials are luring the Patriots with plans for a $250 million stadium complex in Providence, over half of which would be publicly financed. If they succeed, it "would have a profound impact on people's attitudes" toward Providence, gushes John S. Swen, executive director of the state's Economic Development Corp. "It would be a huge, huge win."

Folks in Boston are finding this awfully hard to stomach. "It's a disgrace," fumes Michael S. Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic Presidential candidate. Pundits say the issue is sure to figure in next year's gubernatorial race. The outcry has led to a plan, unveiled Sept. 24, to sink over $100 million into renovating the Patriots' antiquated digs in Foxboro, a suburb 30 miles south of Boston.

But it may be too little, too late. Compared with new facilities such as the Washington Redskins' spanking new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Foxboro Stadium is an anachronism. Built in 1971 for a mere $6 million, it seats just over 60,000, making it one of the league's smallest. Foxboro generates $20 million less than the NFL's top stadiums and, as a result, the defending American Football Conference champs are "losing $5 million to $10 million a year," even though every home game is sold out, says a team spokesman. No wonder owner Robert Kraft has been searching for a new home since 1994, when he bought the club for $173 million.

Kraft has long wanted to move the team from exurban Foxboro to Boston to gain access to the corporate fans who could fill luxury boxes. But his efforts have been repeatedly rebuffed, most recently in 1996, by locals objecting to the congestion a stadium would create. That gave Cianci and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond an opening.

Rhode Island's enticements go far beyond anything offered by Massachusetts. A 68,000-seat stadium would be erected in downtown Providence. The Patriots would get all the revenue-raising devices of today's NFL, from charging fans for the right to buy season tickets to finding a corporation willing to pay millions to put its name on the stadium.

DUELING PLANS. Rhode Island's final tab could approach $140 million, some of which might be privately financed. The high price means that Providence and Rhode Island would be hard hit if attendance tapers off. Even so, "the odds of getting it through the state legislature are very good," reckons Darrell M. West, a political science professor at Brown University.

Meanwhile, Foxboro and Massachusetts officials are scrambling to build support for a competing plan under which they would invest some $50 million in the surrounding area, while Kraft would sink a small amount into the stadium. But even if this flies politically--hardly a sure thing--it would be no match for a new stadium.

Cianci may be right when he predicts that the Patriots will ultimately decide "to move up to Providence." As he notes, the city has far more restaurants, shopping, and other attractions--not to mention better road access--than Foxboro.

Moreover, after almost $1.5 billion in renovations since the early '80s, Providence is now enjoying a true downtown renaissance. So the city once derided as the pit of New England may soon be known as the home of the Pats.

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