WOONSOCKET — Gov. Lincoln Chafee took a walk on Main Street with Mayor Leo T. Fontaine on Monday and learned about the challenges of economic development in one of his state’s distressed communities.
There were several signs of hope to be found on the tour, talks with business owners making a go of it despite the tough economy, and also a few reminders of work yet to be done to put viable businesses in still vacant storefronts.
“It’s challenging,” Chafee admitted after touring the large mill property Marie Deschenes is revitalizing at 117 Main St.
Deschenes missed out on historic tax credits other mill owners have used to help rework their old buildings into new uses and is relying on ingenuity to carry out a mixed-used redevelopment of the property and is doing much of the work out her own pocket.
She told of buying the former Falls Yarn mill property for over $900,000 and then spending another $500,000 on needed improvements such as new furnaces and electrical work.
The property owner also told Chafee about her efforts to locate new businesses in the onetime textile plant and about plans for residential development in some of its unused spaces.
Deschenes’ cable installation company, Vogue Communications Systems Inc., has been doing work in Rhode Island since 2000, she told Chafee.
“We ran up to 45 employees at one point,” she said. The company builds transmission centers for companies such as Cox Communications and Comcast,
and as a result of its modest growth, Deschenes decided to buy the Woonsocket mill property for some of its operations.
“And then the economy went down,” she said. “So it’s been a struggle, but we’re working it out and we’re working hard to keep it going,” Deschenes told Chafee.
Under its previous use as a furniture store, the building had about five tenants in addition to the store, but Deschenes has been working to make her property a more diverse mix of businesses.
She houses the Blackstone Valley Fencing Academy visited by the Governor, one of Christine Rondeau’s kickboxing studios, the Stage Right lounge and gallery, John Danis’ carpentry business, Woonsocket Awning, a Woonsocket Boys and Girls Club center, the RiverzEdge art program, other art studios and small businesses.
The 18 businesses already in place, however, only take up about half of the space in the complex, Deschenes said, and more work will be needed to finish her vision of an artists’ shopping mall in one section of the building and artist loft apartments in another.
Deschenes said her biggest hurdles yet to top are finishing electrical work to the unused spaces and completing the update of the buildings’ heating systems. She has put in five new furnaces so far, but still is using temporary heating in some areas of the as yet unimproved space.
Chafee told Deschenes that a goal of his new administration will be to direct some attention to the Main Street areas of the state’s distressed communities like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and West Warwick.
He brought along state Economic Director Keith Stokes for the local tour of Main Street to meet business owners like Deschenes and Chris and Hanna Garrison, the owners of the circa 1879 Honan Block building on Main Street.
The Garrisons, originally from New York City, live upstairs in their building and just leased one of its two commercial store fronts, the former Main Street 2000 Restaurant for a new Indian cuisine eatery, the Tandoori Restaurant.
Chafee said property owners like Deschenes or the Garrisons might be helped by an effort to restore historic tax credits that went away with the recent recession.
Stokes said the administration is already at work on trying to come up with a historic tax credit program that could be directed specifically toward commercial redevelopment of the properties and possibly mixed uses like those being worked on by Deschenes.
Mayor Fontaine said that would be a welcome development for his own community’s economic development efforts and pointed to Deschenes as the type of property owner who could benefit from them.
“She’s been very modest,” Fontaine said after listening to the owner detail her own efforts at local economic development. “The amount of work that she’s done and the capital she invested in this property has been enormous,” Fontaine said. “In fact she’s done this all and really tapped into what we all envisioned when we talk about artist colonies and putting artists to work from that stand point,” Fontaine said.
“We talked about historic tax credits for commercial development and this is one of those areas where you can see something like that would certainly help,” he said.