Route 295’s Outpost fighting to keep doors open

Route 295’s Outpost fighting to keep doors open

Mike LaFond opened The Outpost in the Blackstone River Valley State Park Visitor Center in July. The store sells local products and food items. (Breeze photo by Brittany Ballantyne)

LINCOLN – Michael LaFond, the retiring Cumberland firefighter who opened The Outpost at the visitor center on Route 295 in July, is getting some support, say officials in his fight to stay open.

Representatives of Department of Environmental Management, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, Gov. Gina Raimondo and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline are all promising to intervene with the Federal Highway Administration, which is directing the convenience store to close up.

LaFond says it wasn’t until federal officials stopped by this summer - shortly after he’d opened - that he learned of any legal issues with his business.

He says he’s still unclear why he’s been told he can’t continue considering that Dunkin’ Donuts was in the same space for five years before him.

Initially, LaFond was told the signs he placed along the highway had to be removed. But it’s turned out to be much more.

As of early this week, LaFond still doesn’t have anything in writing from federal officials telling him he can’t operate.

Instead, the Rhode Island DEM and state Department of Transportation have been communicating with Carlos Machado, division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration of Rhode Island.

A letter from DEM and RIDOT to Machado on Dec. 6 addresses two letters from Machado about The Outpost that cite Title 23, Section 111 of the United States Code, which prohibits establishments on the right-of-way of the federal interstate system.

Machado’s letter reads that the continued operation of the business at the visitor center could jeopardize the state’s federal highway transportation funds.

Rose Jones, chief public affairs officer of DEM, told The Breeze “since its (visitor center) inception, it was always conceived that there would be a commercial facility there.”

Dunkin’ Donuts had operated in the center from its opening in 2006 until 2011, she said. LaFond said blueprints from before the building was constructed show the plan for the coffee shop there.

Jones said 80 percent of the building project was federally funded, and explained, “It’s really about how the federal guideline is being interpreted,” adding that the new administrator of FHA questioned whether this commercial business was permitted under federal guidelines.

Jones said DEM was notified by RIDOT in the summer about Machado’s letter.

Bob Billington, director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, told The Breeze this week that he spent years working with RIDOT, DEM, FHA and the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor commission to see the visitor center come to life. It’s deliberately set back from the highway, on Blackstone Valley park land, he said.

He said each group “worked extremely hard to do something that had not been done before, and that is bring the state park property line up to the federal highway property line, and then blend the two and make it so a traveler could access the state park from the highway – which is fabulous.”

Billington said after the center’s loss of Dunkin’ Donuts, he searched for almost four years to find a vendor before partnering with LaFond. He traveled through New England in his search and met with people in Washington, D.C., trying to meet with franchisees to bring into the center.

Prior to The Outpost opening, LaFond said there were 3,000 people monthly visiting the center. His best month in business thus far, which was October, saw more than 12,000 visitors.

“Something’s not being understood right, and this is the third federal highway administrator that I know that’s worked under this program,” Billington said.

“We had a Dunkin’ Donuts 24 hours a day, and no one noticed? DEM and DOT, they don’t fool around. They don’t break the rules.”

Billington spoke of the center as a “brilliant piece of state and federal government work for all the right reasons.” He said he thinks every party involved needs to look at the situation “sensibly.”

“If it ran for six years and it was OK then, how did it become not OK now?” he questioned.

Since the issue arose, LaFond has turned away small businesses from bringing in their products in to sell. He doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. And while he waits for an answer, he remains positive that a decision will be made to save the Outpost and visitor center as a whole.

Jones said, “We’re really hopeful that we’re going to be able to come to a really good solution on this,” calling the FHA a valuable partner.

“I’m going to fight the fight,” LaFond said, who has not reached out for a lawyer, and said the facts will speak for themselves.