Chester Building could be site of new charter high school

Chester Building could be site of new charter high school

PAWTUCKET - Administrators from the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy have zeroed in on the Benjamin Chester Building in downtown Pawtucket as a target location for their high school, which is set to open next fall. The building, at 175 Main St., at one time contained the Peerless Department Store, a hub for local shoppers.

The building, across from the historic Slater Mill site, is currently home to the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center and the Pawtucket Department of Planning and Redevelopment, among other tenants. Jeremy Chiappetta, executive director of the Cumberland-based public charter school, told members of the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency last week that he and others at the expanding school would "be thrilled to engage in serious discussions" about leasing the second floor of the Chester Building, with hopes of eventually buying the whole thing.

"We would love, truly love to be partners in this site," said Chiappetta.

Because Blackstone Valley Prep's plan calls for full occupancy within four years if the school buys the building, officials with the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, who staff the Visitor Center, would either need to find a new home or reach an agreement to rent space, according to Dylan Zelazo, spokesman for Mayor Donald Grebien. The tourist hub, first opened in 1998 as the home of the Tourism Council, draws more than 100,000 people a year.

Pawtucket has the largest share of students at Blackstone Valley Prep, about 30 percent, said Chiappetta, and administrators continue to see the "greatest demand" for the school from this city. Of the 1,700 applications for the school this year, about half of them were from Pawtucket, he said.

Blackstone Valley Prep has a long-term commitment to Pawtucket, said Chiappetta, reinforcing that commitment with the move of its administrative offices to the Lorraine Mills at 560 Mineral Spring Ave. in September.

There would only be about 90 students at the new Blackstone Valley Prep high school to start out, said Chiappetta. But as the school expands with each new grade, the need for space will increase, meaning those behind the school will want all three floors of the building. The 40,000 square feet of available space would accommodate the 360-400 students that are eventually expected to attend the high school.

Blackstone Valley Prep officials would be open to either a lease or a lease-purchase, said Chiappetta.

"Ultimately our interest would be in long-term lease or purchase of the entire facility," he told members of the PRA. As more students are added with each year, said Chiappetta, "our ability to pay" will go up "dramatically." With only 90 students to start out, the ability to pay up front is "not huge," he said.

Blackstone Valley Prep would be "really good partners" with existing tenants while they figure out financing for potentially purchasing the entire building, which is listed on real estate site Loopnet.com for $3.2 million. The second floor would be sufficient for two years "while we figure things out," he said.

The rental rate being advertised by Pawtucket officials on Loopnet is $14 per square foot for the 24,000 square feet of space on the Chester Building's second floor. The space could be divided up.

If the PRA decides to reject Blackstone Valley Prep as a tenant, said Chiappetta, there are a few other facilities school administrators could "pull the trigger" on "now," but would be "thrilled to have our program" at the Pawtucket site "for a lot of reasons."

Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, founder of Blackstone Valley Prep, said in an email that he and others are keeping their options open and are not committed to the Chester Building.

"We are looking at a few options to purchase or lease to house the high school for short and long term needs for next year's 9th grade," he said. "The Visitor Center is one of the sites that we are considering. Nothing definite yet."

Barney Heath, director of the Pawtucket Planning and Redevelopment Department, said no decision was made during an executive session meeting of the PRA last week. The PRA will be considering the proposal from Blackstone Valley Prep at its next meeting on Dec. 17, he said.

Blackstone Valley Prep students and their families have been asking often about where the new high school will be when it opens next fall, said Chiappetta, and administrators want to be able to give them an answer by January. PRA members were receptive to the idea of a charter school coming to the Chester Building, expressing no real concerns with the proposal.

PRA member John Baxter asked Chiappetta if the expectations are that any lease agreement between the PRA, which owns the building, and Blackstone Valley Prep would reflect an understanding that the building would be signed over to the school after two years.

"Are you looking for the assumption being there in writing?" asked Baxter.

Chiappetta responded that "one solution" for the high school is a "two-year solution," but administrators are "not excited about that." They want this building to be their high school for the next seven years and beyond, he said. Leasing the second floor for two years would allow them to get funding in order for a purchase of the whole building, he said.

PRA members also asked about the need for facilities like a gym or cafeteria, which would not fit at the Chester Building. Chiappetta responded that school administrators plan to have a "world class facility" but understand that not all amenities will fit in the building. They expect to create partnerships with Tolman High School, the YMCA and other facilities to accommodate some of those needs. There is plenty of parking on site.

There are a number of factors that school leaders would need to investigate for the conversion of the second-floor space into a school, said Chiappetta, but they don't expect any of those to act as hindrances to getting a deal done.

Blackstone Valley Prep, a free school where students from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Lincoln and Cumberland are selected by random lottery, currently serves more than 1,000 students. A high school has always been a part of the plan for the charter school network, which has a mission to put every scholar on a path to college.

In 2009, a group of teachers and staff launched Elementary School on Fatima Drive in Cumberland. In 2010, the school network launched its first middle school, which has since moved to Lincoln's former Fairlawn School. Elementary 2 launched in 2011, eventually settling at the Fatima Drive location. Elementary 1 is now located at 291 Broad St. in Cumberland, the former St. Patrick's School.

Comments

It's hard to imagine how they could wrestle with several issues in time for a Fall 2014 school opening. For example, at the meeting Chiappetta also mentioned conversion permissions, e.g., are there any environmental issues associated with the building? Furthermore, if their ability to pay up front is "not huge," then who would be footing the bill for what he estimated to be a $7 million project ("move sprinklers, etc.") to convert the $3.2 million building to a school?