Newport is pushing a technology-centered, research cluster redevelopment plan that's similar to plans Providence and state officials have been working on for years.
(TNS) -- With the soaring arch of the Newport-Pell Bridge as a backdrop, a possible in-state rivalry is emerging in Rhode Island's long-running economic reinvention drama.
Some 30 miles south of the state capital, Newport is pushing a technology-centered, research cluster redevelopment plan similar to, and possibly competing with, plans Providence and state officials have been working on for years.
Like Providence, Newport's plan revolves around a set of antiquated highway overpasses cutting through prime real estate.
Where the relocation of Route 195 in Providence freed up around 40 acres (26 buildable) that officials are still working to populate, Newport city leaders have something similar in mind for the oddly arranged Pell Bridge ramps and "road to nowhere" that cuts through the city's North End.
Moving those ramps could free up 41 acres of commercially zoned land close to Naval Station Newport and a number of prime redevelopment properties, City Manager Joseph Nicholson said last week.
The competition could come over private investment and the $20-million jackpot in Gov. Gina Raimondo's "Innovation Campus" contest, approved by Rhode Island voters as part of a bond referendum on the November ballot.
Commerce Corporation officials, who are running the contest and will choose the winner, have mentioned Newport and Providence as the two locations that have expressed interest in the competition so far.
If Newport enters the contest, it will have support on Smith Hill from Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a longtime backer of North End redevelopment in her hometown.
"I would hope that the [Newport] private sector and defense industry companies would possibly participate in the competition," Paiva Weed said in an interview last week. "I think [Newport's plan] falls absolutely in the competition parameters."
Since the Navy began pulling ships and sailors out of Aquidneck Island in the 1970s, Newport has been working to redevelop the North End as an employment center to complement the tourism industry and wealthy residential neighborhoods farther south.
A key to those plans is improving the ramps on the Clairborne Pell Newport Bridge, which were designed with a possible interstate highway in mind and take up unnecessary space while featuring frequent traffic jams where visitors turn to reach downtown.
Although they aren't saying much about the project publicly, state Department of Transportation officials may be inching the ramps up their priority list.
The state's 10-year transportation plan, approved in September, includes $39.7 million for reconstruction of the Pell ramps starting in 2018, with the bulk of the spending between 2021 and 2024.
Nicholson said the city and its designer are in "very aggressive talks" with the RIDOT about the ramp realignment plan.
"The goal of the project is to improve safety and reduce traffic congestion and circulation issues," RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin wrote in an email. "RIDOT is in discussions with the city as the Department recognizes that the Innovation Hub will create positive economic growth and the ramp will improve our transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of the City."
The "Innovation Hub" is one term for what the city hopes to build on the state-owned land left behind if the ramps are condensed.
It's a plan with a lot of moving pieces.
Where the I-195 project has been driven by the state, Newport's plan is being steered by the city and a consortium of private companies hoping to participate in redevelopment.
Hired by the city last year under a $500,000 "pre-development agreement," the consortium is led by Infralinx Capital LLC, which specializes in public-private partnership financing. The other members are engineering services provider Louis Berger Inc. and Providence-based construction firm Gilbane Inc.
The agreement authorizes the consortium to put together private development and financing deals with outside firms, who would be offered "concessions" on the project land.
The private firms may even finance and perform the ramp realignment, although St. Martin wrote that is "still in negotiation."
Nicholson said it was too early to go into detail on how these arrangements might work, but said he has three tentative deals he hopes to unveil to the City Council early in 2017.
Descriptions of the industry cluster Newport hopes to attract to the Innovation Hub vary.
Nicholson said it would probably revolve around the defense industry, ocean research and cybersecurity.
Paul Carroll, Newport's director of civic investment, describes a "resilience engine" of activity and research related to climate change and disaster adaptation.
One project in the works is the creation of a solar-powered "micro-grid" that could provide electricity for critical buildings like City Hall, fire stations, shelters and medical facilities in the case of a disaster.
And then there is Newport Grand, the slot machine parlor at the end of the Pell ramps that owner Twin River Management Company intends to close in favor of a casino in Tiverton. Twin River has said it hopes to sell the property, but if it can't, it will demolish the building.
Twin River spokeswoman Patti Doyle wrote last week that the company had met with Paiva Weed and then-Mayor Jeanne Napolitano about "the city's and the state's interest in that region of Newport."
Adding the Newport Grand land would push the Innovation Hub area past 60 acres — and that's not counting the Navy's waterfront former hospital property, which the city is also pursuing.
The city has already reached an agreement with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center to work together on licensing of Navy technology at the "Innovate Newport" incubator being built at the former Sheffield School on Broadway.
The incubator was recently awarded $2.1 million in Rebuild R.I. tax credits from the state Commerce Corporation.
"There is a sense of optimism in the air in the community that the North End redevelopment is finally taking shape," Paiva Weed said.
"I can see the projects moving off of the chalkboard to the stage where you talk about the real stuff: money, contractors, design work," Nicholson said.
©2016 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.