2015-04-23 / Front Page

Post-Slots Future Imagined

By Tom Walsh

Twin River Management Group’s announcement on Tuesday, April 21, that it hopes to abandon its Newport Grand slots parlor on Admiral Kalbfus Road for a rural Tiverton site was met with a resolve by Newport officials to successfully redevelop the 21 acres for the city’s long-term gain.

“It’s a development,” said Newport at-large Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin. “When a development comes along, you have to take a deep breath and give your brain time to determine what you think of it. We have to think about how we deal with it. This is not just a challenge. It’s an opportunity that didn’t exist a couple of days ago. With no casino at the top of the hill, it all weaves itself into an interesting tapestry.”

“The key is to find a good developer,” said Third Ward Councilor Kathryn E. Leonard. She said the land is private property. “We can’t just tell people what to do with it. The question is how do we create good jobs there so kids who grew up in Newport can stay in Newport?”

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said the development “presents a real challenge for the city. But it could also be a real opportunity. There’s going to be an impact. It will be really important that we find a use for this property that will be compatible with future Newport generations.”

Napolitano said the city will need to begin soon to prepare for the revenue loss that would occur without Newport Grand. “This is the last piece of property available for build-out in Newport,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to get it right.”

She said she believes that some involved with state finances and budgeting are still “really upset” with Newport for rejecting the Newport Grand table games referendum last year. “We affected the state budget when we shut them down,” Napolitano said. “You can’t close your eyes to it.”

While the demise of Newport Grand would cost the city about $800,000 a year in gambling and property tax revenue alone, this won’t happen before 2018 at the earliest. Tiverton and statewide voters will have to approve the proposal. That referendum would likely occur in November, 2016.

Newport voters have twice rejected proposals to allow table games at Newport Grand. And, while Tiverton voters approved the Newport Grand proposal in 2014 by a two-to-one margin, there will be no guarantee of a similar local outcome at the polls in Tiverton a year from this November.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said in a statement that she has “expressed my concern that, if the move to Tiverton proceeds, the future development of the present location is a critical issue for Newport.” The goal for the Newport Grand property, the Senate president said, is to “transform the existing site into another revenue and jobs generating area for Newport.”

Governor Gina Raimondo said in a statement, “This is a proposal that could be beneficial for the state. We look forward to learning more details, and to engaging with the town of Tiverton about it.”

Joseph Nicholson, Newport interim city manager, and Paul J. Carroll, director of civic investment, did not return phone calls from Newport This Week.

Former Providence mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Joseph A. Paolino Jr., now a Newport homeowner as well as the owner of a prominent commercial real estate business, was the driving force behind last fall’s Newport Grand campaign that the city’s voters rejected. In early March, Paolino transferred his interest in a purchase and sales agreement for Newport Grand to Twin River Management Group, which operates the Twin River Casino in Lincoln.

Paolino said during the table games campaign last fall that if the referendum were approved, he would spend $40 million refurbishing the slots parlor and adding an entertainment center to the property.

Now, he maintains that his company remains interested in future development opportunities on the Newport Grand site. “I was hoping to have a nice development there in the past,” Paolino said. "Let’s see what they want and what is financially feasible. It is something my company will definitely look at.”

John E. Taylor Jr., chairman of the board of Twin River Worldwide Holdings, parent company of Twin River Management Group, said in a Tuesday press conference that the company is prepared to proceed with its planned improvements at the Newport facility. “We promised to add enhancements and we will still do those, including removing the ‘Slots’ sign,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of speculation on what might become of the Admiral Kalbfus property if Newport Grand relocates. Taylor suggested that the city could use the freed-up acreage as additional land for the proposed Pell Bridge ramp realignments “if that’s where the city wants to go.”

Napolitano described the “Slots” building as 38 years old and in need of rehabilitation. She said it might make more sense to tear it down. She said the city needs more areas for parking, but said the property should not be just a big parking lot.

“We have to determine what we can do to make this opportunity attractive to someone with capital,” McLaughlin said. He also warned that the city must also use caution as it discusses this with prospective developers. “We have to make sure we don’t make all kinds of concessions and then reap nothing,” he said.

In any case, McLaughlin added, “It’s not going to happen this week.”

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