Feb. 17--PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- General Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo selected Hope Artiste Village, a hip mill building on Main Street, as the site last month to announce her Democratic candidacy for governor.
More than 100 supporters turned out for the rally at the sprawling brick complex that is home to nearly 70 businesses, including Urban Smart Growth, Seven Stars Bakery, New Harvest Coffee, artist galleries and a winter farmers' market.
Despite the flurry of business activity, the owners of the building, Hope Artiste Village Proprietor LLC, and the owners of a mill complex referred to as The Thread Factory on more than 12 acres straddling the Pawtucket-Central Falls line owe the cities a total of $776,306 in unpaid property taxes. It breaks down to $410,000 owed to Central Fallsand $366,306 to Pawtucket.
"That's a lot of money to us," said Steve Larrick, planning and economic development coordinator in Central Falls. "This was owed to us during the bankruptcy," which began in August 2011 and ended 13 months later.
The unpaid taxes are a significant hardship in the city, which has an annual budget of $17 million.
Larrick said that the owner of The Thread Factory mill buildings, M&L Financial Co., and M&L Secured Storage LLC, limited partnerships based in Castaic, Calif., owe more in property taxes than any other entity in the 1.3-square-mile city.
Meanwhile, the proposed redevelopment of the complex is seen by Central Falls as a significant asset.
Officials in both cities concede that it's a delicate balance seeking payment of back taxes while hoping the owners redevelop the buildings and make them viable economic engines that will draw visitors and help the local economy.
Hope Artiste Village owes Pawtucket$124,690 for the current tax year. Payment is due April 15, according to the city. The owners have not made the payments due in the previous three quarters of the tax year. Hope Artiste Village is owned by a limited partnership, meaning the names of the owners remain private.
Douglas Hadden, an aide to Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, said city officials worked out a payment plan with representatives from M&L Financial and Urban Smart Growth, which manages both Hope Artiste and the factory property, that will allow them to collect the $241,616 in taxes owed on The Thread Factory by December or January of 2015.
The tax-payment program was proposed by the Grebien administration and approved by the Pawtucket City Council. In Central Falls, Larrick said he hopes a similar arrangement can be worked out with The Thread Factory buildings on Rand and Pine streets. The complex is so big _ with some 1 million square feet of floor space, according to Urban Smart Growth _ that it had its own fire department.
The owners of The Thread Factory complex propose to redevelop it into living and working space for artisans, lofts and retail use.
The complex, which once included the Conant and Coates & Clark mills, was launched in 1825 as a manufacturer of thread that drew immigrant workers from Canada, Ireland, Poland, Syria and Lebanon. Over time, it became the largest thread manufacturer in the world.
Officials in the two cities hope the complex will eventually become a new economic powerhouse.
The problem is especially acute in Central Falls, where hardly any land is available for development.
"Whatever comes up there and it's successful will put Central Falls over the top," said Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa.
Mike Gazdako, property manager of Urban Smart Growth, played a role in negotiating the payment plan with Pawtucket city officials. He said that he represented the owners from California, whom he has never met. Gazdako said that his organization's relationship with M&L and Hope Artiste Village Proprietor is "fiduciary and confidential."
Gazdako said the owners are committed to redeveloping both properties, even though The Thread Factory has remained mostly vacant since the limited partnership bought it about 10 years ago. He said that he knows this because M&L has poured "millions of dollars" in the properties and "no one has walked away from this."
"We have been trying to negotiate with the City of Central Falls," he said. "It's been a rough economic time. It's our intention to pay the taxes off."
Records from the Secretary of State's office show that Lance J. Robbins, chief operating officer of Urban Smart Growth, serves as manager of 12 properties in Pawtucket, Central Falls and North Providence. In 2008, he was recognized by the Pawtucket Foundation as its "Person of the Year" for spurring business development at Hope Artiste Village.
Robbins oversees the purchase and development of large-scale historic rehabilitation projects across the country.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-to-late 1990s, Robbins, who has a law degree, was cited in California with 105 health and building-code violations ranging from operating apartment buildings with blocked emergency exits to failing to maintain fire extinguishers, court records show. He also has real estate holdings in Bloomfield, N.J.; Columbus, Ohio; Marysville, Calif.; and several other places.
Hope Artiste Village also worked out an agreement with Pawtucket that calls for the owners to begin construction of 149 apartment units at the back end of the Main Street site by Dec. 31, 2015, and have the project completed within two years. Gazdako said the size of the apartments will range from 600 to 2,000 square feet.
In 2011, the owners did find a temporary tenant for The Thread Factory: The Low Anthem, a Providence-based indie-folk band that recorded a CD in the building at 280 Rand St. The band rented space for two months; its website features a background of black-and-white photographs of the musicians in the mill complex.
After they were done recording the CD, Central Falls gave them a permit to host a concert in the building that drew several thousand fans who paid $10 a ticket. Today, there is a sign next to the old Porino's Gourmet Foods site in the factory complex that reads: "Urban Smart Growth, Warehouse Space for Lease Up to 100,000 square feet." A broken-down chain-link fence separates the complex from Rand Street.
Gazdako said that he would like to see a turnaround in the vacant buildings in The Thread Factory in Central Falls and Pawtucket that would resemble Hope Artiste Village. He said the owners are seeking bank loans to finance housing, small shops and mixed-use light industrial development.
"There is no development being derived from these properties right now," he said. "Rhode Island has not recovered as quickly as everyone would hope."
On Twitter: @billmalinowski
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