PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A somewhat forgotten Rhode Island referendum that promised to help transform an even older Providence landmark into a museum will cost taxpayers more than a million dollars, without a grand opening.
"There will not be a museum there," state Historian Laureate Pat Conley told Target 12, referring to the 99-year-old Narragansett Electric Co. Dynamo House on South Street. "It won't happen but there is another development in the works."
In 2000, Rhode Island voters rejected a $25 million bond referendum for the Heritage Harbor Museum project but two years later they passed a referendum that allowed the sale of $5 million in bonds for the museum. The project was expected to cost more than $100 million.
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A state official tells Target 12 a portion of the bond money was dispersed and, with principal and interest, taxpayers will be on the hook for about $1.1 million when the bonds mature.
A decade ago, hopes were high for the future of the old building.
"It's going to mean 300 jobs," then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy said during a Heritage Harbor news conference on Sept. 28, 2001, where he was flanked by then-Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci.
"It's going to mean long-term tourism jobs. What an important impact," Kennedy said with excitement.
Conley was named president of the Heritage Harbor Board of Directors in 2008. "They made me, in their infinite wisdom, the captain of the Titanic," he said. "And I'm trying to bring the Titanic into port."
Conley said the ship started taking on water when the economy collapsed in 2008, but he also blames changes in the state's tax credit program for historic buildings, which has been suspended.
"They were penny wise and pound foolish," Conley said. "That ended a lot of projects."
Conley said the original developer, Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse, started renovations inside the building but is no longer involved with the project.
Conley told Target 12 that while the museum dream is over, negotiations are underway to sell the easement on the property, which he says would allow the new developer to tap $9 million in historic tax credits that expire in May.
"I can't mention the name of the developer or the entity the developer is working with," Conley said, adding that an educational institution is involved in the new project.
Conley and a state official tell Target 12 the museum, a nonprofit corporation, is not legally obligated to pay back the bond proceeds or interest.
But Conley says a $313,000 loan from the Providence Economic Development Partnership will be paid back. The loan is one of several that were made to various Providence businesses and are now in default.
"The loan from PEDP gets paid back. Absolutely," Conley said. "Because the easement will sell for many millions of dollars and right off the top, PEDP gets paid."
Conley said the PEDP money was vital to securing the tax credits. He also has a bold prediction for the new development plan for the Dynamo House.
"It will have a mammoth impact," he said, again offering no details. "Hundreds of millions of dollars with what's envisioned."
Conley would not guess at when that deal will be finalized but said it would have to happen before the tax credits expire in May. He also said even though there will not be a museum, proceeds from the easement sale will go into a fund to help historical societies, researchers and museums around the state for decades.
"In the end, this will be great for the preservation of history," he said.
Copyright WPRI 12
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