Warren gateway project cost currently at $9 million

Funding, lease and other issues still being worked on, but town, partner hope to break ground some time this year

By Ted Hayes
Posted 1/17/21

A public/private effort to transform the old National Grid property in the shadow of the Warren River Bridge into a gateway center with a public area, riverwalk and shops/eateries could be ready for …

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Warren gateway project cost currently at $9 million

Funding, lease and other issues still being worked on, but town, partner hope to break ground some time this year

Posted

A public/private effort to transform the old National Grid property in the shadow of the Warren River Bridge into a gateway center with a public area, riverwalk and shops/eateries could be ready for ground-breaking as early as late winter or early Spring.

But before that happens, much — approvals, financing, a formalized agreement and other legal matters — has to come together, Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli said Friday.

The town and its preferred development partner, Barrington developer and attorney Giovanni Cicione, have had a memo of understanding in place since last May but have not yet formalized an agreement under which Mr. Cicione would lease the property purchased by the Town of Warren for $450,000 in 2019. However, Mr. Rulli said they are working on details of the plan and hope to enter the permitting stage soon.

The plan is to renovate and build an addition to the only building currently on the site, the small brick warehouse next to Route 114. A second, larger building would be built on the footprint of an existing foundation, and a third building is possible. A public riverwalk along the water would connect to the riverwalk already built by the developers of the American Tourister property, and benches, a terrace, public restrooms and other public amenities are included, Mr. Rulli said.

Warren has been negotiating with at least two potential tenants for the buildings.

Borealis, a coffee company which got its start at Hope and Main and currently runs a small shop along the East Bay Bike Path in Riverside, has signed a letter of intent to lease the existing building for use as a coffee shop and would likely operate as such early in the day before converting part of the space into a bar/restaurant for lunch and dinner. Officials have also been talking to a brewery which would run a beer brewing facility and higher end restaurant on the larger, as-yet unbuilt building. There has been interest from other potential tenants, he said, and nothing is off the table at this point.

"That location is very attractive to a food-type business," Mr. Rulli said. "It's a signature gateway project (and) a positive for the town."

There are still many hurdles to cross.

As the property lies within a flood plain, all new buildings would need to be raised seven feet, and the town is evaluating whether the small existing warehouse also needs to be raised. Warren officials have applied to the Coastal Resources Management Council for preliminary determination and have received a response. More on flood plain and other requirements will be flushed out as CRMC review continues, Mr. Rulli said.

Another issue is financing. Early on in the project, Mr. Cicione estimated that the development would be privately funded at approximately $1.7 million, “although if I have learned anything over the years it is that those estimates can quickly escalate."

That appears to be the case. Mr. Rulli estimated last week that the total project cost is now close to $9 million.

"Almost half of that is site work," he said. But "it's what needs to be done. I think there's a path forward."

On Thursday, Mr. Cicione and Mr. Rulli had a meeting to talk funding with officials from Rhode Island Commerce. Though the developer has some funds, there would also be a bank financing component and the town has so far invested $550,000 in the property, Mr. Rulli said the town is looking at other funding sources, including tax increment funding. That type of funding considers and would utilize future local tax revenue from the improved site as a basis for financing.

"If you said you were getting $1,000 in taxes (from the property) before but now when we're done are getting $40,000 in taxes, you could use that $39,000 to reinvest in projects and infrastructure. Site work being as expensive as it is, we would like to use tax increment financing. We don't want to raise taxes."

Just as important from the town's perspective, he said, is not losing money on the deal. The town's goal is to "at a minimum come out even or ahead."
If that happens, "we'll be ahead because we've got a signature gateway project ... that's a positive for the town."

Terms of Mr. Cicione's lease with the town have not been finalized. Mr. Rulli said the town's efforts to date "are worth more than the $550,000 we're paying." Given that, "until we know the financial structure, it's premature to enter into a lease agreement."

The project has consumed much of Mr. Rulli's time over the past year, much more so than he anticipated going in. Had the town partnered with a larger developer with deeper pockets — Tourister developer Brady Sullivan applied to be the town's partner but lost out to Mr. Cicione — workload on the town's end might have been less. Still, he said working with a local, small development partner has its advantages, including proximity and responsiveness.

"He's put his best efforts forward," Mr. Rulli told members of the Warren Town Council last week.

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