CENTRAL FALLS -- Jerauld C. Adams back in the mid-1990s was working for a Lincoln engineering company when he became interested in the field of foreclosures, particularly buying distressed properties and rehabbing them.
The Barrington native bought a small boarded-up mansion in Central Falls – the Benjamin F. Greene House at 85 Cross St. with 28 rooms – and so began what is likely to be a lifelong relationship between the now 43-year-old entrepreneur and the state’s smallest city.
The local businessman is relieved that the bankruptcy is over and suggests that its intense scrutiny of city affairs means anything wrong with Central Falls has been corrected, legally and financially. “You could say it is the best city in the state now because everything has been fixed,” Adams told The Times in a recent wide-ranging interview.
As chairman of the board of trustees of the Central Falls library, he helped save the library from closure during the bankruptcy and prepared a five-year operating plan now in place to keep it open. Most recently, his business acumen has attracted the attention of state leaders such as Gov. Lincoln Chafee who made him vice chairman of the new board of directors in charge of the state Economic Development Corp.
But before the bankruptcy, he worried a lot.
Back in the 1990s, doing much of the work himself, Adams renovated the 1868 Greene mansion, lived in it for 10 years with his growing family and started to play a leading role in city affairs. He became a member of various city boards and developed what would turn out to be a providential interest in the city library. In spite of his name, he is not part of the family that began the Adams Memorial Library in 1910.
He went on to acquire in 2008 a huge old factory on Clay Street, the Hemphill Company mill of 115,000 square feet where knitting machines to make hosiery were once manufactured. He bought it from his brother because “I knew I could do more with it,” he said, and “I needed a new project.”
In what he describes as his “full-time job,” Adams now rents out its warren of rooms as “hobby studios” to about 75 tenants such as woodworkers, photographers, musicians, printers and soap-makers. There were only 20 or so tenants when Adams took it over.
“It really filled a niche,” Adams said of the Hemphill colony. “There are lots of people, I’ve discovered, that want to rent these little rooms as hobby studios. Usually, it’s someone who lives in a condominium or an apartment without an extra room or work space. Most tenants have full-time jobs elsewhere.”
Adams works hard to make sure his tenants are well taken care of. He spends every work day at the mill, keeps two maintenance men on staff and is willing to help out his tenants when needed.
“He’s the best landlord ever,” says Daphne Frampton, of Nature Island Botanicals. The 68-year-old Frampton, who makes soaps and other skin-care products from her studio for sale internationally, reeled off a list of Hemphill benefits. She spoke of how the janitors constructed cupboards and shelves for her, how they keep an eye on her space when she’s away, how the parking lot is plowed all winter and the building always locked up tight. She has made friends with other artisans in the mill.
She and Adams insisted the neighborhood, abutting Dexter Street, is safe. “Yes, it is a safe community. The people here are hard-working. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re not hard-working,” Adams says. “I’ve been here most of my life and I don’t worry about crime.”
What he did worry about were taxes.
Before the bankruptcy, Adams said he had little to do with the administration of former Mayor Charles Moreau (now in prison after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges). “I felt a nervousness with the old administration, even as a business owner,” Adams said. “I never knew if taxes would go up. I worried about the taxes.”
When Moreau closed the city library shortly after taking office because he believed employees there were doing computer work for his opponent, it ended any relationship with Adams, always a strong library advocate. “We never really got along after that,” he said. “I was kind of stand-offish.”
Yet a few years later when the receiver actually did close the library July 1, 2011, to save money, Adams as chair of the library board was anything but “stand-offish.”
Allied with former library director Thomas Shannahan, the two began a campaign to get the library open again. Adams was aware that money was available in the form of a $100,000 endowment as well as another $400,000 bequest. “So, I knew at a minimum we could use that money to keep the library open,” he said.
As it turned out, only about $10,000 of those funds was ever used, Adams said, because the story about the city bankruptcy and library closure became news that went “viral” all over the world immediately. “Geez, I must have given about 20 interviews,” Adams said, “even to Al Jazeera.” About $120,000 in donations flooded in, even from such luminaries as actor Alec Baldwin and actress Viola Davis, a Central Falls native, and local volunteers stepped forward to actually run the place.
Within one month, on Aug. 1, 2011, the library re-opened, backed by a five-year plan that Adams prepared to govern operations. At one point, the state was ready to give the city’s library funds to Pawtucket, but Adams and company stepped in to say: “Nooo,” he related, “give it to us.” Now, two nonprofit organizations, each with its own board of directors, and a new director, Joel Petit, are in charge and the library once again is slated to receive funding from the city and state every year.
The apparently happy ending to the library’s woes mirrors what Adams sees as a relatively happy ending to the bankruptcy.
There is now a limit on how much taxes can be raised, he noted, a limit mandated in the court-supervised five-year operating plan for the city which no one can mess with. The current tax rate is $25.72 per $1,000 of assessed value on residential property and $37.06, commercial.
“Knowing what your costs are going to be,” he said, is a key to good business. Adams noted that the court-appointed receivers reviewed every contract the city has and checked out the status of every employee, so there should be “no surprises,” “no deals,” and “no friends” on the payroll.
“It comforts me,” Adams said of the bankruptcy review and resultant five-year plan. “It offers stability. It shows people things are under control here. No matter who is mayor, there always will be someone keeping an eye on the city, whether it’s the state or the courts. They (city officials) cannot vary from the plan, it has to be followed.”
Adams’s real estate development company, North American Industries, is based in Central Falls. He and his wife, Sara Thielbar Adams, and their three children now live on the East Side of Providence, and the Greene mansion has been converted to apartments. Adams hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., and a master’s in real estate from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Now that the Hemphill mill is starting to fill up, he said, “it’s time for me to start looking for another project.”