WOONSOCKET — At the old Vermette's restaurant, a landmark banquet hall that served as a backdrop for countless rites of passage in northern Rhode Island, a wrecking crew will finish the job that Mother Nature began two weeks ago.
After rain-laden snow caused part of the roof to cave in, the city yesterday ordered the emergency demolition of the building, saying it has concluded that what remains of the structure is unsafe and cannot be saved.
Building Inspector Christopher Chianese's order gives the owner of the property, longtime city restaurateur Joe Gaspar, 48 hours to comply, said Economic Development Director Matt Wojcik. “It's got to be a tough day for Joe Gaspar,” he said. “I don't think there are many people from this area whose lives haven't been touched by Vermette's in one way or another, but it's met its demise.”
Yet there may be a silver lining in the calamity for Gaspar. With Vermette's gone, interest for the corner parcel it occupied at Mendon and Diamond Hill roads — perhaps the busiest commercial intersection in the city — is expected to surge.
Wojcik said there are at least two development entities who have a serious interest in the property, though he would not identify them.
“Since this administration came into office we have had non-stop interest in the corner,” said Wojcik. “Not a week goes by where we don't talk about the future of the corner, and cross our fingers.”
They cross their fingers, said Wojcik, because developing the corner to its full potential is as complex a proposal as it is inviting. Though Gaspar owns the strategic corner spot, several other parties own smaller abutting parcels.
It makes the most economic and marketing sense to cobble together all the individual parcels into one big one, says Wojcik. To get there, a developer would have to negotiate individual sales agreements with several parties, which could make the price unattractive.
But Wojcik says the property has so much potential for economic development that it's likely to see some activity even if all the potential sellers aren't on board.
Richard N. Fontaine of the Prudential Fontaine Agency, who has been trying to find a buyer for Vermette's for about two years, agrees.
“We've had a ton of calls since the roof came down,” said Fontaine. “It's been a busy listing right along. It's one of the best corners in town, high traffic. If the economy was good it would've been sold in 90 days.”
The asking price for the parcel, which includes nearly an acre of land, is $850,000. That's substantially less than he was seeking before he knew the building was to be razed, though Fontaine says there's little doubt the property will be easier to sell without the building.
Fontaine says Gaspar doesn't want to see the building torn down, but he isn't sentimental about it. Gaspar, who also owns the Bocce Club, another storied banquet hall in the city, put Vermette's on the market because it's hard enough running one restaurant full-time, let alone two.
“He feels bad, he has a lot of memories there, and that was a good corner for him,” says Fontaine. “But it's time to move on.”
Despite the emergency demolition order, Gaspar won't have to reach into his own pocket to pay the tab – at least not initially. Planning Director Joel Mathews says Gaspar qualifies for an emergency demolition grant from the city's community development program.
The city will expend the funds for the demolition and place a lien against the property to recoup cost, which is expected to run about $15,000, according to Mathews. The seller will be unable to convey the title to the buyer without satisfying the lien at the time of the sale, said Mathews.
“So it's not free money,” said the planning director.
The city issued an emergency request for bid proposals for the demolition yesterday morning. Mathews said the city will take the most competitive of three quotes on the job. Sealed bids are to be opened this morning at City Hall.
Chianese, the building inspector, had ordered the partial demolition of the building on Feb. 6, after a thick layer of snow on the roof took on the added weight of a new rainstorm, causing a section of the roof to collapse. Though officials had speculated earlier that the building might have to be completely razed, it wasn't until yesterday that the speculation became a certainty, said Wojcik.
Family members say Vermette's was founded at the corner of Winter and North Main streets in 1938 by Alice and Alfred Vermette. City records say the existing location was built in 1950 – the beginning of an era when the city's commercial hub was shifting from its longstanding urban core on Main Street to the suburban fringe, a trend that was going on all across America at the time.
“By Wednesday or Thursday morning, the building will be demolished,” said Wojcik.