October 31, 2014
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Saving our heritage, building a future

Turn back the clock and imagine a Rhode Island where there were more jobs than people to fill them and entrepreneurs like Thomas Jefferson Hill, who came from humble beginnings, made a fortune and had a village named for him.

With development of the practical stationary steam engine, Hill realized a mill did not have to depend on waterpower and could be built far from a stream. It allowed him to take advantage of the Rhode Island textile boom of the late 19th Century. Just as important, it could be located close to transportation. In this case, it was the railroad.

Hill built the enterprise and village that became Hillsgrove. The crown jewel was Elizabeth Mill, named after his wife. It still stands today.

Remarkably, the mill continued to be a site for manufacturing for better than a century. It was only in the last decade that Leviton took the manufacture of electrical components, such as light sockets, switches and plugs, to the south. The original mill and other buildings added to the complex were converted to warehouse space for other purposes.

But, like the days of the 1800s when farms disappeared to make way for manufacturers, the days of manufacturing seemed numbered. Not all manufacturing will move off shore and some forms of manufacturing that take advantage of technological advances are still very robust, but there seems to be little need for the open factory spaces of yesteryear. Converting those spaces can be costly and it is often easier to build new.

That was evidently the thinking of Leviton and Kouffler/KGI Properties. Earlier this summer, rumors surfaced that the extensive building, along with the mill built in 1875, would be demolished. That offered two advantages – the site would be cleared for new development and about $500,000 in taxes would be saved.

Fortunately, following a meeting Monday, it doesn’t look like the grand lady of Jefferson Boulevard will end as rubble. The city impressed upon the owner and developers that the mill is an important link to its past and a unique component to the Warwick Station District that is being viewed as the city’s future center. As City Planner William DePasquale said, take away Elizabeth Mill and the concrete offices, residences, hotels and retail space they would like to see in the district will look like “anywhere USA.” The mill is an integral part of creating an identity for the district that can be marketed and make it desirable. It’s a matter of thinking about opportunities differently, as Hill did more than 130 years ago.

The mill is an asset, not a millstone.


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