The businessman behind a plan to rebrand Federal Hill as “Little Italy,” while championing al fresco dining in DePasquale Square, is now out of the Providence real estate, restaurant and hospitality business. Italian American Gianfranco Marrocco recently sold off his last major commercial property in the city, the former Hotel Dolce Villa property at 3 DePasquale Ave., a three-story building that is now slated for redevelopment into apartments.
Marrocco, 60, who came to the U.S. from Italy in 1970, owned apartments and successful restaurants, including Mediterraneo, Caffe Dolce Vita, Wise Guys Deli, and Blend, along with $3 Bar, a source of major controversy in the city as a result of a 2014 homicide that occurred outside of the building after a fight began inside, leading city officials to shut down the business. He also co-owned Club Karma, which was shut down in 2014 after a shooting. Marrocco said he sold off the properties to enjoy retirement, while still doing business consulting.
PBN: What are some of the biggest difficulties, problems or challenges facing commercial and residential property owners in Providence right now?
MARROCCO: Taxes. They keep going up and up and up. Every year it’s more, especially the tangible taxes (assessed on the physical assets and inventory of a business), which are useless. Providence should get rid of them if they want to attract outside people. Most cities have abolished them. That’s why you have a lot of car dealerships moving to Johnston and Cranston. If you’re sitting on $5 million of inventory, you have to pay taxes on that inventory. Other cities don’t have that.
PBN: As you retire from life as a businessman in Providence who’s had a lot of experience with buying and selling and developing real estate, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about real estate?
MARROCCO: I invested in real estate early on in my career. I think that’s what saved me. When I was going through issues with the city and my nightclubs, losing licenses left and right, and then 2008 hit, things seemed to get worse.
If I didn’t own any of the real estate, I think I would have been bankrupt after 20 years of hard work. I tell young people, buy a three-family home and live there for free. You get two rents, and your apartment is basically [free]. Even now with real estate at the highest it’s been in history; the math still works. Also, good credit is everything in America.
PBN: You have been the owner of several restaurants in the city. So, what’s the recipe for a successful restaurant business in Providence?
MARROCCO: In hindsight, I would never go into the restaurant business again ever. It’s so volatile. It’s high risk, low return. Had I invested money into real estate that I had lost in a few of my failed businesses when they took my licenses, I wouldn’t be able to count my money.
About 90% of restaurants fail over five years. Make sure you own the real estate. Because if you fail, you have an out. There are a million other people who think they are smarter than you and want to get into the restaurant business. It’s a glorified business. You get to eat for free. You see friends. And then later you’re out of business.
PBN: You were the owner of the former $3 Bar, where there was once a fatal fight that took place outside, leading to the bar being closed by city officials. And there was also a fatal shooting at the former Club Karma that you co-owned at the time. What do you think about those situations looking back?
MARROCCO: That business was my highest earnings per dollar of anything I ever owned, at $3 a drink. If I was younger, I would have opened up 100 of those. … It was just dirty politics.
If you look in the past two years, murders didn’t stop at nightclubs. Shootings didn’t stop at nightclubs. The world is unfortunately where it is today. People don’t know how to behave. … The mayor at the time was idiotic, [Angel] Taveras. He thought he was going to become governor. He used to be my friend and turned on me. He rallied all my neighbors and meetings next door. He made me out to be public enemy No. 1. I had a clean record. I never was convicted of a crime in my life. They forgot all the other stuff I did out here.
I had the first al fresco dining at Dolce Villa. Throughout the U.S., people didn’t know about al fresco at the time, with the open French doors that leads outside. I was the first guy in Rhode Island to have those.
PBN: Why did you decide that it was now time to downsize your real estate portfolio and enter retirement, and how does it feel?
MARROCCO: I think it’s awesome. Timing is everything in life. People work all their lives and retire at 67 or 70. And then 10 years later they drop dead. I hope my health stays well and I can beat that a little bit. You can’t take it with you. I’m trying to enjoy the years I have ahead to the fullest. You modify your life. When you get older, you don’t need as much as you did before.
Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.
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