PAWTUCKET — Saying they didn’t think it was the best use of the building, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency voted on Tuesday against entering into a lease and/or sale agreement with the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy for the Visitors Center at 175 Main St.
The public charter school, which began in Cumberland and draws students from Pawtucket, Central Falls and surrounding communities, had expressed interest in the 56,000-square-foot building as a location for a new high school. In just a few short years, Blackstone Valley Prep has grown considerably, expanding from the original elementary school to a middle school, and plans are under way to open a high school in the area by the fall of 2014.
According to Pawtucket Planning Director Barney Heath, officials from Blackstone Valley Prep had indicated an interest in leasing space on one floor of the Visitors Center, with an anticipated need for additional space as more grades and enrollment are added. The school had been seeking a long-term lease or a lease with an option to buy.
The Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency (PRA) had met in executive session on Tuesday to discuss the disposition of the PRA-owned property. PRA member John Baxter said later that the board had decided to not support a resolution to enter into a lease and/or sale agreement for 175 Main St. with the public charter school.
Baxter said there were “many reasons” behind the board's decision, including concerns about the building potentially going off the city’s tax rolls due to it becoming an educational institution.
“We just decided that this would not be the best use of that building,” said Baxter. “And Blackstone Valley Prep had indicated that they had other options and were exploring other locations.”
Heath also confirmed that the PRA’s decision was made for a number of reasons, culminating with the consensus that a high school would simply not be the optimal use of the site. He said the PRA will continue to actively seek tenants and/or interested buyers for the property.
When contacted about the rejection of the proposal by the PRA, Jennifer LoPiccolo, director of external affairs for the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, said in an email, “We are excited about a number of great options for our high school. However, in order to protect ongoing negotiations we have no further comment.”
The building, also known as the Benjamin Chester Building, is located in a prime spot in the city’s downtown, directly across from the Slater Mill historic R.I. Department of Labor and Training, the PRA decided to advertise it for sale and/or lease.
Once the Peerless department store, the two-and-a-half-story brick building was later acquired by the quasi-city PRA and has housed the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center. There is a small theater, gallery and gift shop operated by the Slater Mill Museum on the first floor, along with a law firm and the offices of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. The third floor houses the city's Planning and Redevelopment Department, while the sprawling second floor and some other office spaces are now vacant.
At previous discussions with city officials about the future of the building, Bob Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, had portrayed the Visitors Center as an important resource for tourists. He has also stated that the property will take on a bigger role if the Slater Mill historic site becomes designated as a National Park, as has been proposed.
According to an online real estate website, Loopnet, the property is currently being listed with MG Commercial at a lease price of $14 per square foot for the second-floor office space, or a purchase price of $3.2 million for the building and the 2.5-acre site it occupies.
Pawtucket Tax Assessor Robert Burns said that if the building had become a school, it would not have necessarily meant the loss of tax revenue to the city. He said the matter of the property tax status would have depended on a number of factors, including whether or not there was a change of use for the property, and whether the city could charge tax to a charter school.
“There would have been various legal issues to be resolved,” Burns said.
Any tax exemption would also require the approval of the City Council.
Burns said the City Council recently extended a tax exemption of $37,523 to the PRA for the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center that operates out of the building. The PRA currently pays a balance of $112,569 in property taxes under the current assessment.