'New blood' sought to rebuild mill
H. Hampton Hodges’ optimism is as big as his home state – Texas.
It has to be.
Hodges has owned the Pontiac Mills for the past 11 years and it hasn’t been easy. Hodges was attracted to the mills by its history, its location and its potential. He teamed up with his friend, renowned architect Bruno D’Agostino, who had a plan to convert the mill complex into a mixed use of retail and artisan space, offices, banquet facilities and a hotel. The $43 million plan approved by the city ten years ago would have been done in three phases, starting with the hotel.
“This is the number one mill site in the state,” Hodges said in a telephone interview Friday. He points out the mill’s proximity to Route 95, Green Airport, Warwick Mall, Kent Hospital and the state’s institutions of higher learning. Then there is the site’s location on the banks of the Pawtuxet River that also makes it desirable.
Hodges says all those assets are still there although the project has been stalked by misfortune. He’s looking for a buyer.
The major blow was the collapse of the housing market and the recession.
Hodges had an agreement with a condo developer in Boston and in preparation of that transaction he vacated the property of its few tenants. The developer ran into problems marketing projects and as the cash flow dried up, he was forced to divest, losing millions, says Hodges.
“He reneged on the agreement,” says Hodges. That left him with empty buildings. He considered renting portions of the mill, but because of stricter fire codes in the wake of the Station Nightclub Fire, he was advised against making the investment. Then there was the flood of March 2010 that inundated the mill and the new NYLO Hotel, which had become the beacon for the redevelopment of the complex.
It was looking grim. The buildings show signs of deterioration. Windows are missing; roofs are falling in. But Hodges still has faith that the birthplace of the Fruit of the Loom brand has a future. Built in 1863 by Robert and Benjamin Knight, Pontiac Mills produced cloth for the uniforms of Union soldiers in the Civil War. Pontiac Mills is on the National Historic Register.
Last Wednesday, Hodges met with Governor Lincoln Chafee and Mayor Scott Avedisian to walk around the exterior of the mill. Florence Nelson was also in attendance. Nelson has a love for the mill and has worked in hopes of reviving it. It was her letter to Chafee that triggered the meeting. Going inside would have been too treacherous after the ravages of the flood. Hodges believes the time is ripe for development of the property and he’s looking for some help from the state and the city to make it happen.
“There’s money around and they’re willing,” he said of developers.
On the top of Hodges’ list is a redesigned Route 5 and Knight Street intersection that would allow traffic exiting from Knight Street to turn left onto Route 5. He said plans for the intersection were drawn up some time ago and the project could start as soon as it gets the go-ahead and funding. Historic tax credits are also on his list and he believes the mill’s designation as an enterprise zone is an attractive incentive to future tenants.
He says all he needs to have it happen “is a young guy with the energy to do it.”
Chafee, who was interviewed Friday, confessed the mill represents a daunting challenge and there seem to be no clear answer as to how to use it, if that’s at all possible.
“We’re all scratching our heads,” he said.
He doesn’t see a quick fix, although he believes, with the development in the nearby station district and Interlink as its focal point, there will be an increasing demand for the kind of space the mill could provide. At that point, “The mill will be a natural.”
However, for the moment, there’s no easy solution.
“Even with the historic tax credits, it’s [still] a challenge,” said Chafee.
In an email yesterday, Mayor Scott Avedisian said, “We have been working with Hampton and his new marketing person, Bruce Thunberg [of Landmark Realty Group], on getting things rolling at the mills. Our council has passed, and we have sent to the General Assembly, a resolution making the mills an enterprise zone.”
Thunberg sees the tax credit and enterprise zone designation, which are both before state legislators, as critical to the project. The mill project had been fully approved for the historic tax credit program before it was eliminated in 2008. Without it, said Thunberg, the cost of renovation puts the project beyond the point that makes it financially feasible. The enterprise zone would enable companies to take tax deductions for new employees.
Time is critical says Thunberg.
“If something doesn’t happen fast, there’s not going to be much to restore,” he said. All plans are in place and the project is teed up to take place over a five-year period.
“There are buyers hanging around. Once it happens [the tax credits and enterprise zone] it’s going to trigger a sale,” he said.
Apparently no promises were made, but Hodges remains optimistic.
He said he has good architects aboard who have filled the shoes of D’Agostino, whose Massachusetts firm designed the renovations at Fenway Park in Boston. D’Agostino died in 2001. The condition of the 23 buildings is being evaluated and possibly a number of them may be beyond salvation. Hodges imagines a mixed use for the remaining structures between housing and offices. Hodges and Landmark Realty Group in Wakefield are actively marketing the site. The 15-acre property is listed for $3.95 million.
“It looks very bullish right now,” Hodges says.
Hodges said that, as a Texan who knows the oil drilling business, “The good ones are always hard.”
He says Pontiac Mills is a good one.
“And it looks like it’s coming together now,” he said.