2017-05-18 / Around Town

Tech Hub Construction Bids Go Out

By James Merolla and Lynne Tungett

City officials, who will be the landlords of the long-awaited, renovated former Sheffield School, said this week that construction will likely begin in July, with occupancy of the proposed state-of-the-art technology center set for 2018.

“I’m always an eternal optimist, and was hoping for May to start the project,” City Manager Joseph Nicholson told Newport This Week. “The timeline now, more realistically, is that we’ll be ready to put the shovel in the ground in July.”

The city is required to break ground no later than July 2017 and obtain a certificate of occupancy by October 2018 in order to earn significant tax credits on the $6.29 million project.

Scott Gibbs, president of the Economic Development Foundation of R.I. and manager of the project, recently updated a packed assemblage at the Newport Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting on the progress and possibilities of the Sheffield School.

He spoke of a central cafeteria and a cafĂ©. “We want to invite people into the building,” he said.

There will be an airy atrium in the center, and while the completely reimagined new school will be fun and utilitarian, Gibbs said, it will also be “Extremely serious business. The tax credits will save the city money on renovations, and marketing it is very important. But we still have a long way to go.”

Gibbs said the city hopes that construction bids will go out to market after Memorial Day, with preliminary reconstruction beginning in August and occupancy one year later.

The 95-year-old, 34,000-squarefoot former elementary school on Broadway will see 25,000 square feet of its interior redone into what is being called “an incubator” workspace, specializing in what Gibbs termed “underwater technologies.”

Officials said there has been “significant tenant interest,” even for the large 11,000-square-foot space, but there are not yet any confirmed lessees. Prospective tenants will be accepted on a first-come, firstserved basis.

“The technology changes as fast as the real estate industry,” Gibbs said. “If I could predict the technological changes [coming], in that building, I would make a boatload of money right now.”

Glen Gardiner, chief architect of the reconstruction, detailed the current vision. “My observation of the project is to create a collaborative workspace, almost a think-tank environment, where there is a synergy of thought,” he said. “A trend in office co-worker space, much like the Workbar in Cambridge.”

Workbar is a combination of open workspaces and small offices, with access to a conference room, the use of printers and a common space for coffee and meetings.

“There is an identified desire or theme for Sheffield. We’re between Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [on Cape Cod], URI Oceanographic School, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. I presume this building will reflect a cross-section of businesses related to their similar missions,” Gardiner said.

Paul Carroll, director of Civic Investment for the City of Newport, said ocean technologies, such as companies that focus on private or non-government markets, or ones that can bring those technologies into government contracts, is one of the key targets among potential lessees.

Commercial real estate broker Steve Kirby of Newport said that such adapted business spaces are incredibly valuable in the current market. “There is a very low inventory of business, commercial space in Newport now, and the demand is strong,” he said.

Last year, the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. approved the final piece of the project’s financing package with $2.1 million in Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits. The city will redeem the credits over a five-year period for a total amount of $1.92 million.

The project will be funded by a series of grants and city funds, in addition to the $1.9 million in tax credits and the loan. The federal Economic Development Administration provided the initial funding of $1.67 million in 2014, which the city matched with $1.6 million from the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) account.

The city pulled another $400,000 from the UDAG fund for the construction budget. The City Council then approved the appropriation of $700,000 from the city’s Property Acquisition Fund, which is derived through the sale of old school properties, including the $2.5 million sale of the former Underwood Elementary School.

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