PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. wants Citizens Financial Group Inc. to move its headquarters into the vacant “Superman” building, and says state and city leaders should put together a plan now to entice the bank to do so.
Paolino, a prominent real-estate developer, made an impassioned case for Citizens or another corporate tenant to move into the 26-story downtown landmark during Thursday’s taping of Executive Suite.
“Citizens would be the savior of Providence, of Rhode Island, when it comes to commercial property if they ever consolidated everybody to go there,” he said.
Paolino estimated Citizens could shift roughly 4,000 employees currently working at different locations around Rhode Island into the building. “You know what a shot in the arm that would be in downtown Providence? It would be something we’ve never seen in the last 30 years,” he said.
Citizens, which is currently being spun-off from its British parent company, has repeatedly declined to comment on suggestions it could move into the Superman building. “We don’t comment on speculation,” Citizens spokesman Jim Hughes told WPRI.com Thursday. The bank has about 5,370 employees in Rhode Island.
The 87-year-old skyscraper at 111 Westminster Street has been empty since April 2013, when Bank of America – the latest in its long line of financial tenants – moved out. High Rock Development, a Massachusetts real-estate firm, paid $33 million for the building in 2008 and has been seeking taxpayer subsidies to turn the building into an apartment tower.
Bill Fischer, a spokesman for High Rock, was not immediately available Thursday.
Paolino’s comments come as a special legislative commission continues to study the challenges of commercial development and redeveloping historic buildings in Rhode Island. The panel is expected to meet one more time this month before releasing its recommendations.
Paolino suggested roughly $100 million in renovations will be necessary before Citizens or any other company could move into the Superman building, and said state tax credits as well as financial support from the city of Providence would be required to complete the project.
“In order to make that property viable, in order to give [Citizens] competitive rents – because right now they’re renting in the suburbs – you’re going to need to get an infusion from both the city and the state,” he said.
Paolino acknowledged that politicians and taxpayers have been scarred by the 38 Studios debacle, which is on track to cost taxpayers as much as $90 million, but argued a Superman building subsidy should be seen as akin to the new nursing school at the old South Street Power Station or the renovation of the Masonic Temple.
“The state saved South Street Power Station,” he said. “It’s a state guarantee; come on, who’s kidding who? The state made that happen.”
Paolino, of course, has a vested interest in the revitalization of the Superman building: last year he paid $60 million to purchase its next-door neighbor, the 100 Westminster office tower, which he calls “the best building in downtown Providence.” He also owns a variety of other buildings, parking garages and lots in the area.
“Everybody has to pull together on this Superman building. We have to,” Paolino said. “But it’s going to take the governor, it’s going to take her secretary of commerce, to be very bold, to reach out, and to try and market it.”
Paolino was one of the first to warn – loudly – about the problems Bank of America’s pending departure from the Superman building would create. He warned Thursday that leaving the tower vacant and decaying, as it is now, will likely drive down the value of other properties around it – which will reduce cash-strapped Providence’s tax revenue.
“When revaluation comes about, I think every property owner that owns the buildings around the Superman building can go to the tax assessor and go to court and say that their properties have been devalued because that building is empty,” he said, adding: “It’s to everybody’s benefit to keep the values up to try to save that building.”
The next revaluation of city properties is expected to begin late this year.
Paolino Properties has made a number of property acquisitions over the past year after a quieter period when Paolino’s late father was in declining health; Joseph Paolino Sr. died in 2012. The younger Paolino said his company is interested in making more purchases in Rhode Island.
While Paolino publicly backed former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in the Democratic primary for governor last year, during Thursday’s interview he repeatedly praised the leadership qualities of new Gov. Gina Raimondo, who defeated Taveras.
“I’m excited with Governor Raimondo,” he said. “I think she’s going to help change the economy. I think she’s changing so many things that the state needed for a long time. She reminds me a little bit of Bruce Sundlun, in a different way.”
During the Executive Suite taping, Paolino also touched on his decision to sell his agreement to buy the Newport Grand slot-parlor to Twin River. He said he’d been in discussions since December with John Taylor, Twin River’s chairman, and after first considering entering a joint venture, he decided the Lincoln casino’s owners were better off taking it over on their own.
“I think some good things are going to happen there,” he said. “A lot of people are going to be able to keep their jobs, and that’s important. Secondly, the people of Newport don’t have to worry about another table-game vote in 2016, and that’s not going to happen. You’re going to see that ‘SLOTS’ sign taken down off the building, so people will be happy with that.”
“Most importantly, the state of Rhode Island is going to be able to receive revenues from there,” he said.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiDan McGowan contributed to this report.