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Rhode Island is home to beautiful beaches, top-notch universities and a thriving arts scene. Beneath the surface, however, the state faces challenges similar to other parts of the country: shrinking revenues, lost jobs and general economic malaise.
In Rhode Island, the issue has come to a head around the future of the once-iconic Industrial Trust Tower, or, as it is known more affectionately, the Superman building — named for its resemblance to the building the Man of Steel leaped "in a single bound" in the original 1950s TV series. The building is empty for the first time in 85 years, and casts a shadow over a city struggling to reinvent its economy.
A company called High Rock Development took ownership of the Providence landmark on May 1 and presented a controversial proposal to turn the office building into luxury apartments.
In its proposal to the Legislature, High Rock asked for $39 million of unspecified assistance from the state, and $10 million to $15 million in tax breaks from the city of Providence. So, for a grand total of up to $54 million, Providence will get a couple-hundred high-end apartments.
Everyone has an opinion about the future of the tallest, most prominent and instantly recognizable property in town.
"They should turn it into something that's going to help get more jobs out there for the people, that's about it," says Wendy Bolereo, a Providence resident.
Others like the idea of the apartments or condos but don't see how the city and state can provide the assistance considering their economic situation.
Learning From Past Mistakes
The dark cavernous main hall of the Superman building is deserted. As recently as a month ago, residents could cash checks in the bank here. Pens still sit in slots where tellers used to be.
"It's a bit eerie, and kind of sad," says High Rock spokesman Bill Fischer.
Fischer says his company respects Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the city's emotional attachment to the 1927 art deco skyscraper, and that he wants them to be a partner in the building's future.
"But it has to be viewed from a unique perspective," Fischer says, "because the alternative is we flood the market with class-B office space, or we mothball it for a while, and that's not some political or retaliatory tactic — it's a sound real estate tactic."
Fischer says adding more residents to the downtown area would serve the city better than more office space because of the increased spending and tax revenue.
"We're talking about annual spending, just in sales tax alone from those residents, totaling $26 million," he says. "So there's real economic impact if they are willing to make the investment and willing to think long term."
For this particular investment, there's more at stake than just money, however. Rhode Island is still burned from a previous debacle that attracted national attention.
In 2010, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling asked the state for a $75 million loan to start a video game company in Providence, after Massachusetts had turned him down for the funding. He promised the state hundreds of jobs.
Rhode Island hoped a successful tech company would draw more businesses to the state, so they gave Schilling almost everything he asked for. Schilling was a local sports hero, but not experienced with tech startups. Last year, his company, 38 Studios, went bankrupt; Rhode Island was left with the bill.
Len Lardaro, an economist at the University of Rhode Island, says he wasn't surprised when 38 Studios declared bankruptcy. He worries that the state is in for a second round of defaulted loans if it rashly supports redevelopment of the Superman building.
"Well, let's see how badly run the city and state are," Lardaro says. "If they [the developers] get major concessions of the magnitude they're looking for, then Rhode Island will have earned its lagging status."
Lardaro says the key thing to learn from the handling of the Superman building is not to get too tied to the past.
"You've got to always look at the best possible use going forward, not looking back," he says, "and you don't do that by being nostalgic with your money."
A Measured Approach
Lardaro might not need to worry too much, since this time around state and city representatives have been openly critical of High Rock's proposal. Taveras, the Providence mayor, seems determined not to let his city make the same mistake twice.
"If you are asking for governmental support, you certainly need to look at all possibilities," Taveras says. "Certainly, I will as mayor."
The Superman building is hard to ignore from his ornate city hall office, with its direct view of the imposing tower from every window. But Taveras is hesitant to endorse High Rock's proposal until he has more information.
"We will figure out what we can do ... to be helpful, and also the market will dictate some things as well," he says. "But I believe it will be a symbol of renewal and I look forward to that."
In the meantime, Taveras, and Rhode Island, have bigger issues to address. At 9.1 percent, the state's unemployment rate is the highest in New England and the sixth-highest in the country.
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