Developer: City's economy is based in its thriving mills

Developer: City's economy is based in its thriving mills

No tax credits needed to develop 25 properties, says Lavoie

PAWTUCKET - Developer Len Lavoie was here long before mill rehabs were popular, back before historic tax credits were even thought of. Lavoie was around for the old days of the textile industry, the arrival and then departure of the jewelry industry, and finally the modern arts-inspired renaissance of Pawtucket.

According to Lavoie, Pawtucket would be filled with "a whole bunch of empty mills just ready to be burned" if not for the work he and others have done to redevelop 25 mill properties within city borders.

These old mill buildings may not look like much from the outside, he said, but inside they're home to hundreds of thriving businesses that contribute hundreds of jobs and huge tax revenue to the city each year. "Unbelievable demand" has led to very low vacancy rates, said Lavoie, as business owners of all stripes find the space that best suits their needs.

And there's not a historic tax credit in sight.

"I want nothing to do with historic tax credits," he said. "I'm interested in the city welcoming people in and making the process easier."

Plenty of old industrial properties in the city have been redeveloped using the state's old historic tax credit program, said Lavoie, but he's convinced that the "right way" is the one that starts in one corner of a mill and transforms one unit at a time, "maximizing the usefulness" of each.

The state tax credits that Mayor Don Grebien and others are lobbying to reinstate now have their place, but do not allow the kind of "creativity" needed to accommodate diverse needs of tenants, said Lavoie.

"It limits what you can do with the building," he said, noting that he would never be able to extend a dock or give some units their own entrances if historic tax credits were involved.

City officials in Pawtucket have gotten much better about realizing what it takes to redevelop an old mill, said Lavoie, now understanding that they aren't going to find out ahead of time what the eventual finished project is going to look like.

"That's not how it works," he said. "This is a mill, not an office park."

Lavoie took The Breeze on a tour of three of his most successful former industrial properties, The Mills at 545 Pawtucket Ave., the Lorraine Mills at 560 Mineral Spring Ave., and The Mills at 250 Esten Ave.

Some of the more recognizable names at the three mills are Ten31 Productions, with its living art productions at 250 Esten Ave., Embolden Design at 545 Pawtucket Ave., and the famed "Shark Tank" stars of Nuts 'n More at 560 Mineral Spring Ave.

"We've got some real heavy-hitters in these mills," said Lavoie.

Hundreds of other tenants, including artists, designers, photographers, manufacturers, exercise studios, dance groups, textile companies, yoga studios, jewelry makers, theaters, sewing schools, novelty manufacturers and bakeries, all make their home in these mills, said Lavoie.

There's a company, Neptco, that creates laminate for the fins of windmills. Another business owner has found a niche importing and distributing Spanish hard cider.

"We have everything in here," said Lavoie.

While there are some "hobbyists" in the mills, said Lavoie, most tenants are "driven" artists who have created names for themselves across the country and around the world.

In 23 years, said Lavoie, he and developer Peter Giroux have orchestrated the redevelopment of 27 mill buildings, 25 in Pawtucket and two in Providence. The movement originally took off, he said, as artists were kicked out of buildings in Providence to make way for redevelopment initiatives there.

These days, the tenants aren't always flocking from other communities, said Lavoie, so "I go chase a lot of these people" to come here. Very affordable prices and an offer of a space that matches a tenant's needs do the trick, he said.

Lavoie and Giroux, of the Rhode Island Commercial Industry Realty, or RICIR, have pushed through obstacle after obstacle at both the city and state level to bring in a multitude of tenants, said Lavoie, all the while doing it in the most cost-efficient way possible for the owners of the various mills. For example, he said, when the owner of a biotechnology company wanted to come into a mill, he was at first denied by a former zoning official, but developers pushed back and showed that biotech is an acceptable use.

"We've just plowed, and plowed, and plowed ahead," said Lavoie.

On average, Lavoie and Giroux place 60 tenants each year in Pawtucket mills, a number that's remained consistent over the past two decades, according to Lavoie.