December 20, 2014
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Artists’ Exchange submits plan to use vacant school

It’s been six years since students filled classrooms at Christopher Rhodes School, recitals were held in the theater and works of art hung on corridor walls.

That could all return, and much more, if the city accepts the proposal of the Artists’ Exchange to lease the building for $1 a year.

The Artists’ Exchange, which has operated from 50 Rolfe Square in Cranston for the past 10 years, submitted the only proposal for the sale or lease of the property that the Warwick School Department turned back to the city. Rhodes was closed in 2008 as part of a school consolidation in response to declining student enrollment. Potowomut School also closed that year and Drum Rock was re-purposed as the Early Childhood Center.

The fact that the Exchange was the only bidder came as a surprise earlier this week to both the organization and city officials.

At a pre-bid conference earlier this year, two other groups expressed interest in the property, according to Ward 2 Councilman Thomas Chadronet, who has closely followed developments and serves on the committee appointed by the mayor to find a new use for the school. It was anticipated that Green School, a charter school, and the Rhode Island Military Organization would also have proposals for the building. The military organization talked about using the school as the site for a youth development academy.

Initial reaction to the Exchange’s proposal has been guarded but positive.

“I met with the Artists’ Exchange and think that they have run an effective, good program in Cranston. I will wait until I hear from the Rhodes Re-Use Committee for making any recommendations,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in an email.

City Principal Planner Rick Crenca likes the proposed use of the building, “although I haven’t gone through everything in there [the proposal].” He believes the Exchange would have a low impact and “fit well” with the neighborhood.”

Former councilman and city council president Bruce Place, who chairs the re-use committee, said yesterday, “I’m very pleased the Artists’ Exchange came through with a proposal.” He said he hopes to have a committee meeting in the next week and a recommendation to the mayor shortly thereafter.

Place pointed out that an earlier effort to solicit proposals for conversion of the school into an assisted living facility failed to generate any interest. He noted that the committee then was faced with the possibility that the school department would close Aldrich Junior High School. The two properties of about 10 acres each back up to one another. If Aldrich was slated to close, the committee wanted to consider further uses for both properties. But with the School Committee postponing consolidation of secondary schools, Place pushed ahead with the Rhodes School.

Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Karen Bouchard, art program development director for the Exchange, said the school is an ideal venue for expansion of the program. She said the building wouldn’t require major alterations and is in good shape.

“The city has taken good care of it,” she said.

According to its application, major alterations beyond the addition of seats to the theater would be cosmetic, including cleaning, painting and the addition of artworks with a sculpture garden in the courtyard plus flowers and plantings.

The Exchange would operate year-round, offering programs to people of all ages. The former elementary school would become a site for visual and performance classes, theatrical productions, community events, art gallery openings and summer camps, according to the proposal.

“We intend to keep all current programs and continue to grow as we have been,” reads the Exchange application.

A long list of programs follows that includes day art, theater, music, theater shows, community arts festivals, school outreach, yoga, birthday parties for the public and an art boutique open to the public. A strong component will be art programs for adults and children with disabilities.

The Artists’ Exchange is a child of Gateways to Change Inc., located at 11 Knight St. in Warwick, which operates nine residences for persons with developmental disabilities. The private non-profit organization started in 1992 and is “dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for persons with developmental disabilities in community settings,” according to its website. It serves more than 70 people and operates on a $6.9 million budget.

Currently, the Exchange houses a theater, two gallery spaces, nine learning classrooms/art studios and eight private artist studios. Should the group get the school, it would use some rooms for private studios.

The Exchange reasons it “has more to offer Warwick residents than another business” in that it would boost the economy and strengthen the community.

“Both Artists’ Exchange and Warwick have existing resources that could help grow the arts community in Warwick,” reads the application. “By partnering together, we can utilize these existing resources in a way that will benefit Warwick residents far greater than if you just sold the building to a non-community business.”

As a means of strengthening this partnership, the Exchange proposes to provide free enrichment after-school programs to Warwick high school students, discounts to Warwick residents for classes, parties and rentals and Warwick-exclusive events.

Should the city lease the school to the Exchange, the organization projects it would take about six months before it would complete the move to Warwick.


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