PAWTUCKET — Though hailed as a centerpiece of the future Slater Mill National Park that local and state tourism officials are hoping becomes a reality, the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center at 175 Main St. has been struggling to pay its bills and its quasi-public owners are planning to put it up for sale.
City Planning Director Barney Heath confirmed that the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency (PRA), which owns the three-story brick building located across from historic Slater Mill, recently voted to list the building for sale. He said the PRA recently sent letters notifying Mayor Donald Grebien and the City Council of its intent, and the next step would be to contact a real estate agent.
City records show that the PRA purchased the 55,863-square foot building in 1992 for $625,000 from Rhode Island Broadway Properties, Inc. Built in 1969, it housed the former Peerless department store for many years. According to the Tax Assessor’s Office, the building is valued at $4.8 million, according to the 2012 revaluation.
Heath said that the PRA has the ability to buy and sell property under state statute. Any money from the sale of the building would be returned to the PRA’s budget. He said he was not sure of the amount of money that the PRA still owes on the building.
Currently, the first floor of the building contains an art gallery and store operated by the Slater Mill Museum, a small theater, the office of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, the BVTC’s information desk, the law office of Jack Garan, and the Peace Love Studios. The second floor is currently empty and the third floor serves as headquarters for the city’s Planning Department.
Over the past year or so, the building lost two key tenants, a NetWORKri and an extension of Salve Regina University. Since last September, PRA officials have been trying to find new tenants for some of the remaining 24,000 square feet of available space. The building was granted a temporary tax break last year from the city.
In his letter to the mayor, PRA Chairman Roger A. Lemoie wrote that while there has been occasional interest in the space from potential tenants, the agency has received no offers of any substance. He stated that while the PRA “remains confident that tenants can be found,” it has an existing financial repayment obligation that must be met. He added that the PRA’s available cash resources “will only carry us through the first part of 2014.”
Accordingly, Lemoie told the mayor, the PRA voted at its last meeting “to expand its current real estate offering for the property to include sale offers in addition to the lease possibilities.” He assured the mayor that the agency would “continue to move forward in a deliberate and transparent manner and to act in the most fiscally responsible way for the city’s financial future.”
Heath said he did not know the amount of money that the PRA owes on the building, nor what would happen to the Planning Department and other tenants if the building is sold.
“We know that a lot of people have put a lot of time and resources into the Visitors’ Center,” said Heath. He added that if there is an opportunity to keep the Visitors Center in the building as a tenant and find other tenants, the preference would be to lease rather than sell the building outright.
In his response to Lemoie, Mayor Donald Grebien said he appreciated the “responsible and pro-active approach the PRA is taking toward its fiduciary responsibility for this important city property and its current fiscal challenges.” However, he said that beyond the “bottom line” considerations, he wished to emphasize the importance of the building as a visitor center, particularly with the prospect of Slater Mill becoming part of the National Park system. He also noted the related community activities that are held in the building’s theater.
As such, the mayor urged that the PRA, in the event of a property transfer, “strongly consider all viable options which would preserve and retain the Visitor Center functions.”
The building, dedicated in 1999 to Pawtucket attorney Benjamin C. Chester, occupies a prime downtown location at the busy corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. It will join several other large buildings advertising space for lease in the same area, including 200 Main Street and the Blais Cunningham and Crowe Chester building at 150 Main St.