2014-09-25 / Around Town

Sheffield Incubator Seen as Economic Spur

By Tom Walsh

The announcement on Sept. 23 that the vacant Sheffield School on Broadway in Newport will be transformed into a “technology business incubator and accelerator” began resonating far beyond Aquidneck Island almost immediately.

Just a day after this news broke, newspaper websites around the country–including the Miami Herald, Houston Chronicle and the Charlotte, N.C., News Observer–were carrying the news via the Associated Press.

“Newport has a certain caché,” said Mayor Henry F. Winthrop. “Any time anything like this happens in Newport, it becomes news nationally and internationally.”

Interim City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. called the development “a fabulous program. It’s really an example of the rubber hitting the road. We’ve taken a planning concept and developed it into something real. It’s a new era for Newport in terms of the city’s economy.”

Asked what the news compares with, Nicholson said it reminded him of technology ventures that have happened recently in downtown Boston. “It's neat stuff,” Nicholson said. “We’ve taken an old city building that we were in a quandary about and turned it into something special.”

Told that the accolades that have accompanied this project made it sound almost as important as the 1969 opening of the Pell Bridge, Nicholson said, “That’s a great analogy.”

The Sheffield Elementary School closed in June 2006 and has stood vacant since then. Although technically in a residential zone, the City Council had rezoned the property to permit limited business uses with support from neighbors.

“It needs some work,” Nicholson said. “But it’s still a rock-solid building.”

According to the press release announcing the project, business incubators “focus on startup and early stage companies by using business development processes, infrastructure and people to create a nurturing and growth-inspired environment for the businesses to flourish and thrive. The incubation process has been in existence since the 1950s and is a proven way to build successful entrepreneurial enterprises.”

The project will be paid for in part by a more than $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA). Newport will match those funds with money from its Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). The money will be used to redevelop the school. The funds will also be used to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for the building.

According to city officials, the school will serve “marine, climate change, environmental, digital and defense industry clusters,” as well as “entrepreneurs throughout the state.” The project team up to now has included the City of Newport, the Economic Foundation of Rhode Island, and the Newport County Chamber of Commerce.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a press release, “This is great news for Newport that will help diversify and energize our economy, further cementing Aquidneck Island as a key hub for research, development, technology and innovation. This new innovation center will be a great resource for the business community and budding entrepreneurs. It will help harness some of the high wattage institutional brain power we have in the area–from Naval Station Newport to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center to URI–and foster new partnerships to help launch high-tech ventures.”

Nicholson said that while the Sheffield incubator center will not alter the long-held impression of Newport as a desirable resort destination for tourists, it could open a second, parallel track of thinking about the city. “This is serious business,” the interim city manager declared. “It could make people say, ‘Wow, they’ve got both of these things in Newport.’”

Mayor Winthrop said the incubator plan “complements all of the things going on at industrial parks in Middletown and Portsmouth.” He said further that the incubator will help Newport to diversify its economy.

“You never want to put all of your eggs in one basket,” Winthrop said. “This definitely points to brighter things ahead.”

No completion date has been announced.

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