CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins announced Tuesday that the city is no longer considering buying the Historic Park Theatre due to the “substantial cost” of trying to renovate it into a combination community center.
Hopkins said it would cost roughly $2.8 million to purchase the property and another $3.2 million to renovate it with the proper safety requirements for that type of facility.
City leaders were at odds over the plan, which was brought up during an Aug. 28 meeting with stakeholders regarding the use of $6.1 million acquired through Gov. Dan McKee’s Learn365RI Municipal Compact.
About $81.7 million in federal funds were split between Cranston and 30 other municipalities across the state. The compact instructs funding recipients to “invest in existing or new community learning programs, centers and/or libraries that will help advance the goal of improving educational outcomes.”
Hopkins said they still hope to use that money to build or renovate a community center somewhere in the city, adding that renovating Arlington Elementary School remains an option if it closes amid the opening of new school buildings.
“I need to be clear … I have not and still am not proposing or recommending any facility until proper due diligence is performed and shared with the public and key stakeholders that were part of that Aug. 28 meeting,” Hopkins explained.
The city has until Oct. 10 to apply for the funding it signed up for, so officials need to make a final decision on how to use it within a matter of weeks.
Hopkins said last week that he’s not concerned with who owns the theater or how it’s used. He just doesn’t want to see it shut down and become vacant after 99 years.
“My biggest fear is if this doesn’t go through and people don’t want it, that the building is going to be shut down and boarded up and be an eyesore for the city rather than a cultural center,” Hopkins told 12 News on Tuesday.
Cranston City Councilman Robert Ferri said the property should never have been considered for the project in the first place, adding that more than 100 residents reached out to him saying the proposal was not a good idea.
Ferri released a statement Friday saying he was opposed to turning the theater into a community center. He argued that the $6 million originates from APRA funding, which federal guidelines state must go toward “facilities that will be used to improve work, education, and healthcare monitoring that was affected by COVID-19.”
“It does not appear that the administration has taken a considered approach to developing a program or programs that would meet the federal requirements,” Ferri added. “But there is no doubt that any such programs will require ongoing funding after the capital funds are spent acquiring the property.”
Ferri also pointed out that other Rhode Island communities like Johnston have turned down this sort of funding due to future costs that could be incurred by taxpayers.
Additionally, Ferri noted that parking could become an issue, as there are limited street-side spots near the theater, and the lot behind City Hall already gets overrun for nighttime shows.
Ferri believes the city shouldn’t be limiting itself to two options, since it already owns several other properties suitable for a community center project.
In a statement Friday, the mayor said that those opposed to the plan were dismissing it too quickly.
“People choose to stake out political positions on an issue without the facts or taking the time to gain the full base of knowledge that responsible public officials on matters of public policy should gather,” Hopkins said, comparing the situation to the ongoing Budlong Pool controversy.
“It is wrong when we cannot explore ideas without councilpeople running to the press or posting on social media misinformation or incomplete information,” Hopkins continued. “It is a sad day when governmental leaders cannot undertake consideration of possible projects for the good of a community without attention-seeking politicians throwing their political grenades.”
“We were not even at the point to intelligently discuss this with the full city council or public, however, the concept of potentially pursuing The Park was agreed upon by the council president and council majority leader. In order to be transparent you have to have something to be transparent about.”
As reported by the Providence Journal on Wednesday, the theater is jointly owned by former Cranston City Councilman Ed Brady and restaurateur Jeff Quinlan, who both work under Dig In Dining Group.
However, two years after they bought the theater, they now owe the city $35,000
in back taxes and sewer fees, Ferri confirmed.
“I am not sure what the rush is to buy the Park Cinema,” Ferri said Friday. “This is taxpayer money and taxpayers should not be liable for this expense. The administration is trying
to rush a plan through with little transparency and without sound planning.”
Hopkins said there were plenty of steps that needed to be taken before the city considered buying a building that hadn’t happened yet, including roof and HVAC system inspections, appraisals, and environmental impact reports.