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Plastics Group buys old mill, increases work force

May 14, 2012

WOONSOCKET — After back-to-back calamities claimed two landmark mills last year, it seemed as if the storyline for the future of the city’s historic mills was cast in stone — a gravestone.
But a new and unexpected narrative emerged yesterday as a homegrown plastics company announced plans to take over the sprawling Jules Desurmont Mill, one of the most blighted architectural holdovers from the mill era left in the city.
Robert A. Lebeaux, president of The Plastics Group, says the company will sink more than a million dollars in the 1907 mill to refurbish the eyesore and begin using the ground floor for manufacturing before the end of the year.
The company, which employs about 50 people, expects to increase its workforce by about 25 percent to accommodate the expansion.
“Could we have built a new building for less? Probably,” says Lebeaux, a Lincoln resident. “But there really isn’t that much land around here and we wanted to keep it as close to our existing facility as we can.”
“It was available space and it was close to the TPG site,” added marketing consultant Greg Czarnowski. “We value being a manufacturer in Woonsocket and we wanted to continue being here.”
The takeover of the long-neglected, vandal-scarred mill was announced at Costa Park, on the opposite side of the Blackstone River from the site, by company and city officials, including Councilmen Dan Gendron and Robert Moreau. Residential neighbors of the mill and employees of TPG also attended the gathering.
Located at 84 Fairmount St., the Desurmont Mill has 250,000 square feet of space on five levels and was built between 1907 and 1910 as a woolen factory. With myriad broken windows and other telltale signs of repeated vandalism, the red-brick complex is in such horrible condition that city officials can’t honestly say what it’s worth.
“I’d just be pulling a number out of the air,” says Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik. “The last tax assessor said it was worth zero.”
For more than 18 months, Wojcik said, he’s been helping Lebeaux and TPG Vice President Mike Rosenthal untangle a knot of red tape which has kept the building in ownership limbo.
One thorny problem was gaining a clear real estate title to the property. As recently as 2001, a Pawtucket consortium, with backing from a New Zealand financier, had valid plans to convert the site into condos, but the bottom fell out when the state repealed the historic preservation tax credit program.
Though the property appeared all but abandoned until recently, the question of whether the New Zealand company still had a valid title claim on the mill took months to resolve, said Wojick. More recently, Paul Mathias, an ex-Massachusetts state trooper from Blackstone, purchased the tax title to the property at a municipal auction and filed plans to establish a used car auction at the site.
The city discussed tax incentives to bring TPG to the site, but nothing has been firmed up yet, Wojcik said. The city has a system that permits the exemption of a portion of property taxes up front in return for the creation of new jobs, but that might not work in this case because the building is worth so little. Wojcik said he may seek City Council approval to offer the break on the back end, after TPG shores up the property and it’s worth something that would translate into a meaningful exemption for the company.
As a starting point, the city has affixed an arbitrary value of $150,000 on the site, which includes 6.6 acres of waterfront land.
“Within two years I expect the building will be worth 10 times that amount,” said Wojick. “This is one of those rare cases when the buyers may realize a dollar-for-dollar return on their investment.”
Once TPG is established in the building, Wojcik said it will also become “way easier” for the city to help in marketing portions of the structure that the company intends to lease to other businesses.
“We’re extremely pleased,” said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. “They were growing really rapidly and they needed room to expand. It just goes to show you sometimes these projects don’t fall into place overnight. It takes a sustained, persistent effort and you have to give Mr. Wojcik credit for pulling it off.”
TPG was established in 1973 as Ralco Industries and is co-owned by Lebeau and Michael A. Rosenthal, vice president. The company’s specialty is blending one of the most common forms of industrial plastic, polypropylene, with other materials, including glass, calcium and barium, to make it more useful in a variety of consumer applications, from medical equipment to sporting goods.
Rosenthal said the company has about 65,000 square feet of space at its 1112 River St. headquarters, plus it leases another 13,000 square feet nearby. But it’s just not enough.
“We’re so handcuffed for space in our location, sometimes we don’t even have room on the manufacturing floor to put finished product,” he said. “We’re busy twenty-four-seven.”
Lebeaux said the first order of business at Desurmont Mill will be to make sure the building is secure from intruders and the elements. That means repairing dozens of broken windows and the roof. The ground floor will undergo extensive modifications. Initially, the company will begin using about 84,000 square feet on the main level and the basement, but eventually the company will repair the upper stories of the structure and attempt to lease them.
The Desurmont is directly across the street from the former Alice Mill, the 1812 rubber factory that burned down in spectacular fire last June. The blaze was sparked by a welder’s torch while the cavernous mill was undergoing conversion into a wood-pellet fuel factory. A few months earlier, the old Seville Dyeing Company, just across the river from the Alice Mill, got its first glimpse of doom when the roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. The owners later razed what Mother Nature left standing.
The twin disasters have opened a wide new berth along the Blackstone, exposing a picturesque stretch of the river that was for decades blocked from view by industrial buildings. They’ve also stoked fears of collateral damage among homeowners in the area, leery of the dangers posed by vacant industrial giants. That’s one reason Jeff Austin, who lives on nearby Canal Street, was so pleased to hear of TPG’s plans for the Desurmont.
“I’m delighted because it’s a beautiful building,” said Austin. “It’s also increasing Woonsocket’s manufacturing viability. It’s the best of all possible worlds here.”

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