WOONSOCKET – After facing criticism from political opponents for his record on economic development, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine outlined a broad, detailed plan for rejuvenating the city’s economy and eliminating blight Wednesday.
The plan has several major prongs, but perhaps the most ambitious is the development of a new 30-acre office park alongside the Blackstone River, just south of the Cumberland line. Fontaine said the Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency would have to acquire an unsightly auto salvage yard with 1,500 feet of frontage on the river to make the proposed River’s Edge Industrial Park a reality.
The project could create 500 jobs, the mayor said.
“We’re really excited about this project and I think it’s one of those projects that’s going to contribute most toward the economic rejuvenation of the city,” he said. “This is the biggest economic driver for jobs.”
The park would hug the riverfront all the way to the defunct municipal incinerator on Cumberland Hill Road, giving the land-poor city a site to market to high-tech corporations and service industries now forced to look elsewhere for room to grow. CVS/Caremark, whose campus takes up most of the fully-occupied Highland Corporate Park, may also be looking for expansion space close to its corporate headquarters.
The plan was rolled out during a hastily called press briefing in Harris Hall Wednesday by the mayor and Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik, who developed the plan with members of the Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Board. It touched on everything from landing private investment in commuter rail – the Holy Grail of economic development in the city – to bringing in a college.
About 40 people attended as officials, flanked by a series of poster-size visual aids, went through the details for about an hour.
Fontaine called it “the most all-encompassing and comprehensive economic development plan” for the city in decades.
Two of the central goals of the plan, he said, are to give outsiders a better impression of the city by sprucing up major traffic “gateways” and create new opportunities for private investment.
One area under study is the nexus of Social Street and Diamond Hill Road, the location of a cluster of neglected residential structures and a dingy-looking warehouse with a roof that’s caving in.
Like all other aspects of the economic renewal plan, the WRA would play a critical role by deeming such zones “redevelopment areas.” Under state law, the declaration would give the panel sweeping powers to acquire ownership of private property by eminent domain or raze problem areas, opening up new possibilities for marketing the busy traffic junction.
The Social District could also get a lift by selling the vacant Social Street School to private developers for conversion into 12 units of housing. Ideally, says Fontaine, the city wants to achieve that goal without increasing the net housing density in the area. That could be accomplished by razing blighted tenements nearby, using proceeds from the sale to demolish the eyesores.
The same strategy could be employed in the Fairmount section, where the Second Avenue and Fifth Avenue elementary schools have lain vacant for some time. The old Fairmount Fire Station, shuttered in a cost-cutting move several years ago, is also on the block.
Fontaine, who is seeking his third term, has absorbed stinging attacks from opponents over the exodus of national merchandisers from Diamond Hill Road, an area that was, for many years, the epicenter of the city’s retail economy. Wal-Mart, Staples, Lowe’s, Shaw’s Supermarket and other big-brand chain stores have fled the strip during the last two years, some of them resurfacing in North Smithfield’s burgeoning Dowling Village.
But Fontaine also rolled out a plan for pumping some new commercial vigor into Diamond Hill Road and, perhaps, give the rival Dowling Village some healthy competition. A handful of distressed cities in the state have long had the power to create Municipal Economic Development Zones, where taxes on retail sales are capped at half the state rate.
The so-called MED Zone perks were last eyed over a decade ago during the administration of former Mayor Susan D. Menard, but the plan never came to fruition. Now Fontaine says the city is dangling the carrot of MED Zone benefits to Arcadia Realty Trust of White Plains, N.Y., and WP Realty Inc. of Bryn Mawr, Penn., the owners of Walnut Hill Plaza and Woonsocket Plaza, respectively.
Fontaine says there isn’t enough MED Zone space to go around to offer it to both of the landlords because the law says the tax-reduced plot can be no bigger than 30 acres.
But he says he’s hoping to lure one or both of the plaza owners to invest in a makeover that will make their holdings “more of a shopping experience instead of a shopping trip...”
The last MED Zone project forecast $30 million in new revenue over 10 years, money Fontaine said he would funnel into an odor-reduction program at the wastewater treatment plant.
Another big piece of the mayor’s plan involves capitalizing on some of the tragic losses of mills, due to fire and other natural disasters, in the Fairmount area. The loss of the Seville Dyeing Company on First Avenue, and the Alice Mill on Fairmount Street, has created a sizeable tract of open space straddling the Blackstone River near River Street.
Combined with a nearby tax delinquent property, the defunct mill spots could be taken over by the WRA to create a parcel of some 20 acres that would be ideal for manufacturing or industry, officials say. The parcel is already served by Providence & Worcester freight spurs which the railroad has agreed to activate.
But Fontaine said the most exciting possibility for the rail lines in the area is the possibility of developing private Woonsocket-to-Worcester commuter service, with a new depot. Though he provided few details, he said he was “in real discussions” with a potential investor.
If such a proposal came to fruition, it would boost property values throughout the Fairmount section because city residents could cut the commute time to the Boston job market by passing through Providence by train, picking up the MBTA line.
SOME IN the audience quickly attacked the plan. Councilman Albert G. Brien called it “incredulous that responsible” city officials would sign on to such a plan. The industrial park proposal, for example, poses a number of problems, including soil contamination and conservation restrictions which have proven insurmountable to other developers.
“I am really, really surprised the redevelopment agency has endorsed the plan,” he said. “To me it presents more questions than answers.”
Someone booed when Brien asked why the administration was rolling out such an elaborate plan five days before an election primary. Fontaine squares off Tuesday against state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49) and Dave Fisher, a political newcomer from Fairmount.
But Wojcik and the mayor both told Brien the plan had been in the works long before the campaign cycle. “This isn’t just something I started because it’s the silly season in Woonsocket,” Wojcik said. “We started working on this plan in March.”
Phil Labreque, a politically active resident who was in the spectator section, applauded the initiative, saying, “I’m all for it. We have been waiting for this for decades.”
Among other things, Fontaine said he has talked with Prime Healthcare Services of California, prospective buyer of Landmark Medical Center, about converting Landmark into a teaching hospital. He said Prime CEO Prem Reddy also seems receptive to promoting a “medical overlay district” where its network suppliers could build service or manufacturing centers near the hospital. Prime owns 23 hospitals in five states.
The key to pushing forward many aspects of the plan involves the exercise of the redevelopment agency’s unique powers to cut through red tape, according to Wojcik. Instead of marketing raw properties that buyers cannot develop without jumping through zoning and other regulatory hoops, the WRA has the power to market pre-packaged proposals that are shovel-ready.
The Social Street School, for example, could be put on the market not as a school, but as a pre-approved multi-unit residential development. All a developer would have to do is buy it and get to work.
To get to that point, the WRA must declare properties it wants to sell as redevelopment areas first. The Planning Board and City Council would also have to sign off.
“The Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency has signed off on areas they want to work in,” said Wojcik. “It’s been in the works since late spring. It’s not a secret. Their meetings are public.”
While one spot on the panel is vacant, the other four are filled by Albert G. Beauparlant Jr., a real estate developer whose public profile surged recently as the chief engineer of the Main Street Block Party; Doug Brown, a self-employed businessman and former member of the School Committee; Steve Thibault, an accountant; and Paul Gould, a lawyer. All are city residents, a requirement for sitting on the board.
Fontaine said Beauparlant, who worked on bringing a college to the city in 1997, has expressed a special interest in spearheading the renewal of the effort. Beauparlant said after the briefing that he was confident much of the plan could be achieved in five years.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo