AAA is high bidder for what's left of Apponaug Mill

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A vestige of what was once part of the throbbing industrial center of Apponaug – the saw tooth building in the Apponaug Mill complex – could have a new life as a service office for AAA Northeast.

With a bid of $875,000 at yesterday’s auction, AAA became the owner of the expansive brick building that has gone vacant for decades. The auction was conducted on behalf of the state that acquired the former mill property for construction of the Apponaug Circulator. About 15 people turned out for the auction, with three active bidders moving the price upwards from an opening bid of $550,000.

AAA president and CEO Mark A. Shaw said the lease on offices nearby on Centerville Road expire in 2019 and the company was looking for a location that would keep the office in the area and close to Route 95.

Shaw said the mill building didn’t come to his attention until construction on the circulator with its extension of Veterans Memorial Drive east to the roundabout at Centerville and Toll Gate Roads exposed it. Initially, he said, the thought was to demolish the structure that is bigger than what AAA needs. But then Shaw visited the site Tuesday night and found himself intrigued with the structure and its history.

“I hate to see old buildings knocked down,” he said as he and Peter Buhl Jr., AAA manager of real estate planning, stood outside the building following the auction.

It’s too soon to know how the building could be renovated. Shaw thought some of it might be taken down, as it is much more space than needed and AAA has no desire to lease space. He said AAA headquarters would remain in Providence with the saw tooth building essentially replacing the Centerville branch as well as providing space for parking about six service vehicles and possibly a two-bay garage for servicing and repairs. In addition, training would take place at the branch, including a program aimed at senior citizens.

“We aim to teach people to drive as long as they can,” he said.

Thirty to 40 people will work out of the branch office.

AAA built the Centerville Road branch it currently occupies, selling it in 1998 to lease back the 5,000 square feet it needed. With the lease expiring, Shaw expects his people will “study” the options for the property over the next few months with renovations not starting until next spring. From that point, he thought the project could take a year before AAA could move in.

In the immediate future, Shaw said AAA would board up the property.

“There’s no knowing how many people have been in there,” he said.

A fire in 1961 destroyed much of the Apponaug Mill, but according to the late Warwick historian Donald D’Amato, the wane of the mills and the textile industry in the state dates back to 1921 when mill owners, in an attempt to lower costs and eliminate competition, lowered wages by 22.5 percent while increasing work hours. The demands were followed by a strike at the Royal Mills in West Warwick that soon was followed by strikes at mills in neighboring communities. Strikers marched on the Apponaug Mill in early 1922, workers walked out, and the mill was forced to cease operations. While operations were restored, D’Amato contends the strike did irreparable damage to the paternalistic relationship between mill owners and workers and “the textile industry no longer ruled supreme in Rhode Island.”

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