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RI seeks private partner to operate iconic Cranston Street Armory

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – State officials are looking for a private partner to operate the Cranston Street Armory in Providence, which could cost up to $70 million to rehabilitate.

The R.I. Department of Administration (DOA) is expected this week to release a draft request for proposals, which will be presented for the public to inspect over the next two months.

The draft document, which was shared with Target 12, shows the state is looking to maintain ownership of the 190,000-square-foot building but enter into a long-term partnership with at least one operator. The private partner would then help the state pay for the ongoing costs associated with maintaining a deteriorating building.

“We’re going to have to put money in to bring it up to a decent condition and then we want someone to help,” said DOA Director Michael DiBiase.

The iconic armory, designed in 1907, once housed the state’s militia in the West End neighborhood, and it was most recently occupied by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Today it’s largely empty with the exception of some storage, and opens on special occasions for community events during the holidays. The state is currently renting out the space to AMC to film the TV show “NOS4A2.” AMC is paying the state about $55,000 to use the space through the beginning of February.

But the building is costing the state millions to maintain. DiBiase estimates the state has spent $4.8 million over the last five years to keep the building from deteriorating. He estimates the cost of deferred maintenance is anywhere between $40 million and $70 million.

“We’re talking about putting major taxpayer investments under any scenario to bring it up where someone could actually need it,” DiBiase said. “We’d like a partner to cover some of those costs, but we also want those expenditures to make sense in terms of the re-use.”

The public-private partnership proposal is similar to what’s currently in place for other major structures in Rhode Island. Until the Pawtucket Red Sox decided to leave the state, the team leased McCoy Stadium from Pawtucket.

In both cases, the state’s continued ownership means no property taxes are owed on the buildings. The Armory RFP invites applicants to apply for additional financial support from the state’s various economic development incentive programs.

The state will hold two community meetings – one in October and one in November – for feedback on the draft RFP before issuing it to the private sector for consideration.

Rep. Anastasia Williams, who represents the area of Providence where the Armory is located, said she’s been pleased with the state’s engagement of the community in the process so far. And while it’s not perfect, she thinks the public-private partnership is a good idea.

“Everybody is not going to be happy with just anything, but I’m pleased with the process sand I’m pleased with the state’s cooperation with the community,” Williams said.

The state is asking the private operator to open the Armory to the public in some way, no matter what’s ultimately put into the structure. The RFP does not explicitly state what should go inside, but suggests the space could be used for events, recreation and sports, education and arts, or retail and commercial space.

The state said the ideas included in the RFP were based on input gathered from the community.

A 2016 feasibility study included multimillion dollar ideas including space for education. Another proposal showed 168 residential units.

“A wide range of ideas for potential uses of the Armory have been suggested by residents and stakeholders,” state officials wrote.

Sen. Samuel Bell, a Democrat who represents the Armory’s neighborhood, said while happy with the work that’s been done, he’s disappointed the RFP would give the building to a private developer without getting any taxes for the city in return.

If up to him, the state would foot the bill to make it a public property, or a developer would pay taxes to the city to operate it.

“I’m very disappointed because we can’t just continue to assume that not paying taxes to Providence will fix anything,” he said. “That way of thinking has lead to a city budget in very bad shape.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Walt Buteau (wbuteau@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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