Two Irish companies are gearing up to conduct their first business in the United States, with Warwick as their foothold, following a trade mission undertaken by Mayor Scott Avedisian in September in conjunction with the Ireland West International Trade Centre.
Big Red Barn, a County Mayo-based producer of low-cost, highly energy efficient modular housing units and Ezewarm, an innovative producer (also from County Mayo) of solar-compatible, sub-floor heating units are targeting late spring/early summer time windows to showcase prototypes of their products in Warwick – both at no cost to the city.
At a roundtable discussion last Thursday morning in Avedisian’s office – a meeting in which even the mayor’s own chair was utilized by an Irish business delegate; Peter Hynes, chief executive for the Mayo County Council – the topic of the day was mutually-beneficial business collaboration, and there was palpable excitement among the more than dozen Irish business, tourism and political representatives in the room about the opportunities ahead for Rhode Island and the Emerald Isle.
"These are ideas with real value,” said Avedisian at the meeting. "This has been a process of growing ideas through collaboration and making them a reality."
"There is no bigger, more significant collective foreign investment group coming into Rhode Island than the county governments of Mayo, Clare, Sligo and Roscommon located on the west coast of Ireland and their local businesses they support through the Ireland West International Trade Centre in Providence," said Richard Pinto, manager for the West Ireland International Trade Centre. "This mutually committed partnership becomes more exceptional with each visit and will pay growing dividends to Warwick and the state for many years to come."
The delegation first moved to Tennessee Avenue for a photo op and a groundbreaking on a plot where a two-bedroom, 800 square foot prototype of Big Red Barn’s is planned to be assembled. Step one towards that process happened Monday night, as Avedisian appeared before the Warwick Housing Authority for their approval of the site to become a future home for a low-income family in the city.
Doing more of that is the long-term goal with Big Red Barn, Avedisian said on Monday morning. Similar housing units in Warwick would go for around $250,000, according to Donal Byrne, CEO of Big Red Barn. However the Big Red Barn units can be assembled and purchased for less than $100,000. Byrne held up a poster with an example of one of the units, proud that the units more resemble “specialty homes” rather than what you may traditionally think of as a “modular home.”
"You wouldn’t know these were modular homes unless you were told," he said, adding that Big Red Barn, along with private investors, would pay the entire cost for the prototype unit in Warwick.
To Avedisian, the implications for low-cost, high-quality and energy-efficient housing could be tremendous for the state as a whole, not just Warwick.
The extent to which the state is able to implement these structures – which are assembled quickly via interlocking metal frames, are fully solar-capable and utilize energy efficient features to minimize loss of heat – on a large scale depends on the availability of land and money to build low-income housing. However Avedisian thinks the prototype will go a long way towards proving the concept.
"We think we’ll be able to demonstrate to people that it’s a cost-effective way to bring more housing to the state," he said.
A quick drive down to Warwick Mall revealed the next project for which Avedisian sees much potential – an Ezewarm installation at a bus terminal near Target. Ezewarm utilizes a coiled heat structure, deployable in a rolled up mat, underneath surfaces where people stand – such as at a bus or train stop – which produces heat. The technology is also utilized within the flooring of Big Red Barn structures.
Ezewarm technology can be powered directly via the grid, but its big selling point is the ability to be hooked up to solar power, which is more pragmatic for an isolated train or bus terminal than utilizing a traditional plug. The prototype of Ezewarm is expected to be installed at the Target bus stop, pending approval from the mall, by the late spring/early summer.
Avedisian said that he and Ezewarm CEO Brian Hopkins were working with Jeffrey Flath, founder, president and CEO of Warwick-based solar company eNow to potentially supply the panels for terminals. Flath has already worked with the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to install solar panels on the roofs of its buses, and Avedisian said that RIPTA is looking to upgrade 600 of its bus stops throughout the state within the next two years.
A growing relationship
The recent and blossoming relationship between Rhode Island and Irish commerce goes back to at least 2014, when then-governor Lincoln Chafee visited on a trade mission. The Ireland West International Trade Centre, an LLC formed to make it easier for Irish companies to do business in the U.S., then launched in May of 2017 in Providence.
Physical access between Rhode Island and Ireland then became easier and more affordable last July, as the Rhode Island Airport Corporation announced direct flights via Norwegian Air to Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Belfast (as well as Edinburgh, Scotland) from T.F. Green in Warwick.
Then Avedisian went on his own trade mission to Ireland this past September, where he connected with Hopkins and Byrne and first discussed the concept of bringing their companies to Warwick. Those negotiations were no doubt aided by the established free trade zone near T.F. Green, in addition to the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation’s application to make the entirety of the state a free trade zone, which would significantly lessen the burden for foreign entities to export their products.
This would also potentially benefit Warwick employers, as local contractors could be utilized to help assemble and transport products imported from overseas. Byrne said during the meeting on Thursday that he was committed to bringing as many Warwick employers into the fold as was feasible, and that job creation was an important part of the International Trade Center’s mission.
"This was a very promising trip and we hope this will be the start of great things to come for Big Red Barn and Warwick as we are 100 percent committed to grow our business throughout the U.S. and North America using Warwick as our base," said Byrne. "We love Rhode Island, Mayor Avedisian and his team’s positive 'can do' attitude."
The meeting on Thursday included heads of enterprise from four Irish counties – Mayo (John Magee); Sligo (John Reilly); Roscommon (Louise Ward); and Clare (Padraic McElwee) – in addition to the Mayors of County Mayo (Richard Finn) and County Sligo (Seamus Kilgannon). Mayor of County Roscommon, Orla Leydon, was unable to attend.
Avedisian said on Monday that there will be more announcements coming down the pipeline soon, and that the rapidity which these trade developments are coming to fruition is an indication of the strong opportunities to come.
“You know how slow government works,” he said. “To have the first discussion in September and have it taking place so quickly is pretty amazing.”