A Grand new vision for Newport

The Procaccianti Group wants to build year-round attractions in Newport, such as an indoor water park. /
The Procaccianti Group wants to build year-round attractions in Newport, such as an indoor water park. /

The Procaccianti Group last week unveiled plans for as much as $1.4 billion of development on 75 acres of Newport’s North End, including entertainment facilities, residential and commercial space, starting with the acquisition and overhaul of Newport Grand.
Executives with the Cranston-based developer and hotel owner-manager said they’re close to completing the purchase of Newport Grand, pending state approval of the transfer to TPG of the license for the venue’s video lottery terminals.
The VLT license is held by the current owners: CEO Diane Hurley and the rest of the family of Arthur Silvester, who developed the original Newport Jai Alai fronton in 1976.
The purchase price has been set at $155 million, according to Ralph V. Izzi Jr., TPG marketing communications director. The company confirmed that TPG is continuing with existing plans to expand Newport Grand’s gaming capacity from 1,070 VLTs to 2,201 and build a hotel.
But Procaccianti’s vision reaches well beyond those plans. At an event last Wednesday, Thomas Niles, executive vice president for development, spoke at length about sustainable development and “New Urbanist” principles when discussing the project’s full scope.
The concept – named O2 Newport – is part of a national effort that Procaccianti is rolling out, including O2 developments in Santa Monica, Calif., Palm Beach Gardens and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Paradise Valley, Ariz., and other locations. But the Newport plan “is the greatest of all these opportunities,” he said.
“Newport imitates nothing,” Niles said. “It is authentic. Here you live by the sea, not by a sea of parking.”
Details of the plan were not available, because, aside from the changes at Newport Grand, the project is still in the conceptual stage.
Hurley said that the groundwork was laid in 2005, when the R.I. Economic Development Corporation and the Newport County Chamber of Commerce came to her with a plan to revitalize the city’s North End. She said she realized that she needed a partner or a purchaser with the resources to turn the concept into reality.
At that point, Procaccianti entered the equation, said Niles. Using the North End Master Plan created by the city last year as a platform, the company saw the opportunity to create a year-round destination, both separate from Newport’s current downtown, but connected by intermodal (rail and shuttles) transportation.
The goal was to create a place where people could work, play and live without ever having to get into their car once they are there. There would be small office space, in the 500- to 3,500-square-foot range, in line with what is possible within the “village” zoning concept, as well as living space for moderate income workers.
There would be retail and restaurant space, but also community recreational facilities, so that residents of Aquidneck Island won’t have to travel out of state to play adult soccer late at night on a weekend. And if the former Newport Naval Hospital site can be redeveloped, there could be a waterfront entertainment complex that could bring major acts to the city.
The project, as sketched out by Procaccianti, depends on major involvement by the state and federal governments. The ramps from the Pell Bridge into Newport would need to be realigned, adding to the 24 acres that come with the Newport Grand property. At least from the conceptual stage, the state is behind the project.
Saul Kaplan, executive director of the EDC, said the North End plan represents “a compelling vision,” and it has resulted in a significant private developer stepping up. … Our rule is always to respect the local process … [and] look for ways to be supportive.”
U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy joined TPG and Newport Grand officials at the Newport press conference, opening his remarks by saying that “if this plan weren’t so serious, you would rename Aquidneck Island Fantasy Island.”
Kennedy tied O2 with other Aquidneck Island needs, including the West Side Master Plan, which aims to connect the waterfront more directly to the island’s residents. And while he urged the state to come through with the needed infrastructure improvements to make the project a reality, Kennedy also reiterated his opposition to the proposed LNG terminal at Weaver’s Cove, near Fall River, saying that it would kill any possibility for increased use of Newport harbor for commercial purposes.
Keith W. Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, said that in his two-decade career in public policy, this was one of the most extraordinary economic development projects he had seen.
He added that it’s not just about the money. “This is an opportunity to create a free-standing neighborhood,” he said, one that continues the work in the city’s North End that has been going on since the 1990s, and that has included the creation of the Community College of Rhode Island’s Newport campus.
There will be jobs created – about 650 once Newport Grand and the accompanying hotel (identified during the press conference as a Ritz-Carlton) are built out – along with 300 to 400 housing units, though Stokes added that the housing will be for moderate-income workers. “Folks we employ who make $30,000 to $40,000, they can’t live anywhere in this area,” he said. But the opportunity he sees, and which he has spoken about before, is turning Newport into a year-round destination resort.
“Newport is a very mature tourism environment,” he said, with about 3- to 3.5 million visitors a year. “They are coming for the great mansions; they are coming for the festivals. … But they are coming back to us and saying, ‘We wish there was more for us to do.’ They are starting to compare us to Palm Beach, Monterey, Savannah and such. … Great Wolf Resorts, the country’s largest indoor water park developer, has already come to us. They want to be here in the North End.”
Stokes acknowledged that it was going to be a long process, much like the work of Providence’s Capital Commission, which has transformed the city.
“It’s like being at base camp on Mount Everest,” he said. “The real work is ahead.”

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