PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Before nearly 200 people gathered on a glorious Monday morning, Wexford Science & Technology President and CEO James Berens spoke of why he has persevered for three years to negotiate with state leaders and future tenants of an innovation center the Baltimore firm will now build on two acres of vacant, former highway land.
Like state leaders, Berens said he has high hopes the $88-million center will ensure the concentration of talent, money, programs and companies necessary to support innovative ideas in the state and its capital city. By convening universities, private enterprise and entrepreneurs on this land, Berens said he expects new ideas to spawn new companies.
“Particularly in smaller markets, if your assets are spread out, they have less impact on the environment around them,” Berens said. If they can attract and keep entrepreneurs here, he said, “Then talent will cluster here, and talent is the main ingredient of economic growth.”
The project’s Monday groundbreaking drew Gov. Gina Raimondo, the state’s congressional delegation, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, business leaders and Wexford tenants.
This project is central to Raimondo’s efforts to turn Rhode Island’s economy squarely toward the future — and away from its jewelry manufacturing days that she and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed each acknowledged are not coming back.
Raimondo hailed the project as “the start of something transformational” that will create 1,000 construction jobs first and then about as many jobs for engineers, researchers, custodians, support staff and executives.
Wexford and CV Properties, its partner that expects to build an adjacent Aloft hotel, have received the largest share of economic incentives the Raimondo administration has awarded in 2½ years to encourage companies to move or expand here.
Together, they’ve secured approximately $41.3 million in tax credits and cash intended to help developers close project-financing gaps. That total includes up to $15 million in Rebuild R.I. tax credits, which companies can use to offset their corporate tax liability after a building project is completed, and $18.5 million from the I-195 Fund that Raimondo and legislators infused with $25 million in the 2016 state budget, the first adopted during her administration.
The incentives package also includes the $4.5-million value of the land, which the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission chose not to sell to Wexford.
None of the incentives are Qualified Jobs tax credits, which also help companies offset their tax liability but require a certain number of jobs. That means the project isn’t bound by the incentives it has to create a certain number of jobs.
Timeline: Construction crews will mobilize on the land by week’s end, Berens said. He hopes the foundation will be built before winter and the center completed within two years.
Occupancy: Berens said he expects the center to be fully occupied when it opens. Three tenants have signed leases to occupy 75 percent of the building.
Building size: Nearly 195,000 square feet.
Land size: Wexford will build on about 2 acres, only a fraction of the 19 developable acres in the former highway corridor. Another 7 acres are set aside to become city parks.
Is this the first project on former highway land? No. Johnson & Wales University completed the first building on vacant land freed up by the state’s $623-million realignment of Route 195 in 2016 — the John J. Bowen Center for Science and Innovation. The university was granted special permission to buy two highway parcels in 2011 legislation, which also created the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission to develop the remaining highway land. Wexford’s project is the first to break ground on the land the commission controls.
Who’s paying to build this: Wexford and the real-estate investment trust Ventas, of Chicago, are joint venture partners. Asked how the project is being financed, Berens said, “With a little bit of our equity and a lot of theirs.”
‒ Cambridge Innovation Center: Has signed a 15-year lease to occupy 63,000 square feet. CIC offers new and growing companies shared working space, access to venture-capital investors who work in the same building, and networking opportunities for their entrepreneurs. It’s located in five cities: Cambridge, Boston, St. Louis, Miami and Rotterdam. Construction is under way in Philadelphia. At the groundbreaking, Founder and CEO Tim Rowe said the lease includes renewal options: “We’re not going anywhere.”
‒ Brown University’s School of Professional Studies: Has signed a 15-year lease to occupy 50,000 square feet.
‒ Johnson & Johnson’s Health Technology Center: Has signed a 10-year lease for its Health Technology Center, which set up earlier this year in One Ship St., an adjacent building also owned by Wexford.