2016-10-20 / Front Page

City Leaders Consider Post-Grand Future

By Tom Walsh

With political insiders more certain than ever that voters in both Tiverton and the rest of Rhode Island will approve Twin River Management Group’s (TRMG) plan to develop a full-service casino in that town by 2018, city officials have begun to ponder the future of the North End without Newport Grand.

“In truth, there have been some conversations about this,” said Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. “But I don’t know what the price [for the property] would be or how we would pay for it. Obviously, because it is privately owned, they will put it on the market and get the best price for it.”

Napolitano said that the loss of city revenues once a new casino opens in Tiverton would represent 17 cents on the Newport tax rate. “Obviously we’re concerned about what this would cost the taxpayers should we lose that,” she said, adding that this alone makes the property “something that we’d be interested in looking at. But whether we can afford it and whether taxpayers would support it remains to be seen. Right now everything depends on the vote.”

“I’ve said it before: We should be looking at this and how we go about acquiring it,” said at-large Councilor Justin McLaughlin. He added, though, that even though he thinks the city should buy it, it should not be with the idea of owning it for long.

McLaughlin said he recently discussed the issue with City Manager Joseph Nicholson. “He said they were considering possibilities for use of the land, but that there were no active plans in place to acquire the property,” McLaughlin related.

First Ward Councilor Marco Camacho added, “From my personal standpoint, this is a win-win situation for the City of Newport.” He said that the availability of the Newport Grand site, assuming that both Tiverton and statewide voters approve Question 1 on Nov. 8, along with additional land that will become available with the Pell Bridge ramp realignment project, together amount to “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Camacho said that other in the North End, developable land is scarce in Newport. “In the long term, this can be a huge benefit for the City of Newport to have these lands available,” he said.

But he also stressed that Newport Grand will continue to operate until TRMG builds and outfits the new Tiverton casino. By most assessments, that will take about two years.

“The city will continue to get the money it now receives from the slots and property taxes until then,” Camacho said.

In 2015, the slots parlor poured $456,356 into the city’s coffers. However, 10 years earlier, city revenues from that source totaled a much heftier $772,901.

In a presidential election year that has produced more controversy than any election in recent memory, there is no guarantee that voters will approve anything. Yet, confidence remains.

“I think it’s a good proposal and that the people will get behind it,” said Democratic state Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, who also holds the title of House majority whip.

As with the two prior elections when the issue was on the ballot, Rhode Island law requires that voters both statewide and in the affected community approve any casino plan. Newport voters have twice rejected casino proposals, while a majority of voters in the remainder of the state supported them.

A casual glimpse of political lawn signs in Tiverton suggests an overwhelming number of “Yes” signs in favor of the casino, as compared to the number of signs urging a vote against. Edwards agreed but warned, “Signs don’t win elections. But they do kind of give you an idea.”

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said she has also been informed by local officials that “there will be support for the casino in Tiverton.” She maintained that TRMG ownership “wants to work with city and state leaders in connection with the sale of the property.”

She added, “If there is a silver lining to the loss of Newport Grand, it’s that this has brought a new awareness to the potential of the city’s North End. I’m very excited about it. There’s a sense, a feeling that you get, that the time is finally right.”

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