It’s all about connections. Actually, it’s a lot more than connections, although having them is extremely helpful.
Last week I used this column to write about Mike Integlia and how he put together a deal to buy the Leviton Manufacturing property on Jefferson Boulevard when other developers couldn’t. Mike’s vision for the future of the land and its buildings is different. He looked at the components of the site rather than a sum of its pieces. So far it’s working. He has already sold more than 500,000 square feet of the Leviton plant to Dean Warehousing, which already occupied a portion of the space and was looking to acquire it.
Mike subdivided the property. One of five parcels includes the Elizabeth Mill and its brick bell tower, an icon of the city’s past as a manufacturing center and a key to the Warwick Station District unique characteristics and sense of place. The plan is to save it, redeveloping the space for a new use, possibly apartments.
On Friday, I met another visionary, Nick Korstad, and visited another Warwick icon.
Nick wore sneakers, chinos, a light jacket and a baseball cap. Nick is in his early 30s, drives a Mercedes station wagon with Oregon registration plates that he calls his “workshop.”
The sneakers were appropriate because we were going to be on a boat and our destination was Conimicut Lighthouse. The jacket, however, didn’t offer much protection, even though it had warmed to the 50s and there was a light breeze out of the south; a beautiful day.
Mayor Scott Avedisian was in jeans and a heavy fleece. Dave Picozzi of the Department of Public Works came prepared with a heavy jacket that looked like it had been issued by the Fire Department without department insignia. Rounding out the passengers on the 35-foot Department of Environmental Management (DEM) vessel out of Winstead’s Marina were Trish Reynolds and Richard Crenca of the Planning Department and Dave Tobin of Capitol Contracting of North Providence. Tobin is an important player in this story – one with the right connections – but, unquestionably, Nick plays the lead.
Greeting us as we boarded were Kurt Blanchard and Kevin Snow.
Nick has a passion for lighthouses that goes back to his childhood growing up on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. As a boy, he dreamed of being a lighthouse keeper but the Coast Guard automated lights and scaled back operations and those positions disappeared.
That didn’t stop Nick.
Two years ago, when the Borden Flats Lighthouse off Fall River came up at auction, Nick, who was 29, was one of the bidders. He paid $56,000 for his dream.
That lighthouse was hardly in dream condition. It had not been touched for decades. Even the cormorants and sea gulls seemed to leave it alone.
“It’s haunted,” he said. “All those spirits told the birds to keep out.”
Nick put a lot of work into it: He built an addition to the light last year, chipped away flaked paint and restored the interior living accommodations. He now rents the light at $299 a night to couples – with no kids allowed. Word of this venture traveled quickly among lighthouse enthusiasts and, after media coverage, Nick has booked the lighthouse about 100 times since opening for business.
Nick started looking at more disused lighthouses, of which there are quite a lot. Conimicut was one. His research led him to the fact that the light had been turned over to the city. He thought it offered possibilities but he didn’t know who to contact.
Enter Dave Tobin. His company is refurbishing the Hog Island Light that is privately owned. As it often happens in Rhode Island, Dave knew somebody who knew Scott Avedisian. The somebody was John Loughlin, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress. Dave put in a call to John and, as Dave makes it sound, in a matter of minutes, he was talking to Scott.
Scott was intrigued. Since acquiring Conimicut Light, the city won a $500,000 grant to restore it and make it accessible to the public. But the grant was never funded and the light, while visited by the Coast Guard to maintain solar panels that feed a bank of batteries to operate the light, it is showing the effects of exposure to the elements. Grass is growing on its lower roof; paint is peeling; and its guardrails are rusted. Some rails are broken.
Scott saw possibilities for a partnership, whereby Nick would restore the light and use it as part of his business venture while the city gets to preserve an asset and offer tours of the light. One of his first calls was to Councilman Joe Solomon, who spearheaded the drive for the city to acquire the light in the first place. A next step was a visit to the Borden Flats Light. Scott was impressed.
Naturally, Nick wanted to assess the condition of the Conimicut Light. Scott turned to his connections and DEM obliged. Thier boat could take the party out.
Solomon wasn’t available to make the trip, but had he been there, his familiarity with the area could have qualified him for tour director. As it was, Scott pointed out landmarks as we rounded Warwick Neck – Warwick Light, the Aldrich Mansion and Rocky Point, where conceivably a restored or new dock could play a role in a Conimicut Light future.
With the tide ebbing, Deputy Chief Blanchard was fearful of grounding DEM Law Enforcement Patrol Boat 351. After several attempts, he nosed the vessel to the steel ladder of the lighthouse, leaving the prop turning slowly to prevent the boat being swept against the rocks. The light’s foghorn protested, although there wasn’t any fog.
As nimble as a cat, Nick was off the boat. In short order, a steel door was opened. Picozzi brought flashlights as the windows were boarded up. The entry level is where the kitchen was. Below was another level with a cistern. Interior bricks were flaked and there were holes in some sections of the floor but the stairs were solid. On additional levels were the rooms, even a tiled shower barely three feet wide. As we moved up, light filtered down. Then we reached the top with its captivating view of the bay and the shoal over which the light stands sentry.
Nick was excited.
“Piece of cake,” he said.
Those wouldn’t have been my words. Elizabeth Mill looks in better shape. But Nick said Conimicut Light has aged more gracefully than what he found at Borden Flats and other lights. His optimism was contagious.
Scott is thinking Nick could make sufficient headway for the light to be opened for tours next summer. Of course, an agreement needs to be hammered out and work needs to be done.
But, with a few phone calls, there’s light where there had been a questionable future for another icon that gives Warwick its sense of place.