Six years ago the Rhode Island Department of Transportation used millions in federal money to buy a mammoth former printing plant in Warwick for a new materials testing lab. But DOT Director Peter Alviti put the renovation on hold in 2015 - saying the $14 million price tag for renovation was too steep. Now, as the federal government wants to know what happened to the money it invested with nothing to show for it, another high-profile state agency wants the building for its own new headquarters. This week Jim Hummel finds the plan might solve the problem for two state agencies.
Six years ago, this former printing plant in Warwick looked like a perfect location for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which had been searching for a place to relocate its outdated materials testing lab - housed in the basement of DOT headquarters across from the State House.
Inside the 52,000-square-foot building just off Jefferson Boulevard was plenty of room for new equipment, offices and a training center. With that in mind, the Federal Highway Administration - which requires the materials testing on all projects - funded the $2.3 million purchase in 2012. The estimated cost for renovation: $4.5 million.
By the time Peter Alviti took over as DOT Director in early 2015 that renovation estimate made more than tripled.
Alviti: ``The history of this thing escalated from a $4 million original cost to a $14 million estimated cost.’’
Hummel: ``Was that apples to apples or were they asking for more things? It couldn’t’ have been the same…’’
Alviti: ``I don’t know.’
Hummel: ``Did you look at it?’’
Alviti: ``Frankly I don’t care. That being one of the piles of things on my desk, in additional to broken bridges and decayed roadways, I kind of put it off to one side and focused our priorities here at DOT to rebuilding the roads, rebuilding the bridges and developing a long-range plan and reorganizing DOT.’’
But three years have gone by and the Federal Highway Administration has been asking about the $2.3 million it invested with nothing to show for it.
Hummel: ``In the FHA’s mind a year goes by, two years go by, we’re now on the third year, what’s happening to our money? You’ve had discussions with them about - was there a little pressure from the feds to do something with the property?’’
Alviti: ``They’ve been very patient with us, they now are beginning to get a little bit impatient, in that they’d like to see us bring that facility to fruition with the initial investment that we made it in. And we’d like to, too, we’d just like to do it at the right time and I think now is the right time and at the right price and at the right size.’’
Enter the Rhode Island Department of Emergency Management, which has been sharing quarters with the Rhode Island National Guard, making it difficult space to access because of the security involved.
Alviti said he and EMA Director Peter Gaynor began talking a year ago about DOT’s vacant property at 55 Colorado Avenue. The Hummel Report has learned that Gaynor is cobbling together funding for a $15-million renovation that would transform this space into a new EMA headquarters, with a huge increase in office and training space.
In an interview with The Hummel Report earlier this month, Gaynor said: ``We’ve been quietly working on it, but I think it’s going to go a little bit faster now because we have a designer on board, we put an RFP out and we’re going to get cracking here shortly.’’
Part of the EMA’s renovation cost would be money to reimburse the federal government for part of the original purchase price.
But Alviti still faces the challenge of relocating the DOT’s materials testing lab, located in what is essentially an office building. The sign of above the entrance described the department before it was reorganized in the 1970s into The Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
Antiquated equipment in tight quarters has made for difficult working conditions and over the years employees on the upper floors have complained periodically about fumes and noise - so much so that DOT has outsourced some of the work and performed some tests on the weekends.
Alviti’s plan is to sell all or most of the Colorado Avenue property to EMA and build a scaled-down lab in a separate structure on the other side of the 6.5 acres, which is adjacent to DOT’s highways maintenance building on Lincoln Avenue.
Alviti: ``We’re not looking to build the Taj Mahal here, but we’re looking to build a laboratory that will provide the services that we need, no more, no less. We’re trying to right-size our facility and he’s trying to right-size his needs and we’re trying to see where all of the pieces puzzles will fit on this site and how they’ll coexist. We’re hopeful we can get the money that we need to put that plan in place so that EMA can occupy all - if not most - of the Colorado Avenue and that we could build some inexpensive metal building adjacent to it, that is prefab metal building that would serve our purpose.’’
And Gaynor says a renovation should take approximately 18 months, meaning EMA could be in sometime next year.
In Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.