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Developer: ’Superman’ Aid Plan Unlike 38 Studios

The so-called Superman building is the most distinctive in Providence's modest skyline.

Tue August 26, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Eroka Niedowski - ASSOCIATED PRESS

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) A private developer seeking $39 million in state aid to redevelop the Superman building into apartments on June 3 rejected comparisons to the deal that gave the now-defunct 38 Studios video game company a $75 million state-backed loan, calling his pitch to lawmaker “extremely transparent.”

David Sweetser of High Rock Development told the Senate Finance Committee his plan builds in protections for taxpayers, including a provision that would prohibit the firm from getting any money until the project is complete. High Rock would also buy a completion bond.

“We have been extremely transparent. We have been pursuing this for two years,” said Sweetser. “This is not an 11th-hour backroom type of situation.”

He said no historic re-use project, especially one of this scale, is possible without state support and linked the success of the vacant 26-story building to the economic success of the city and state.

High Rock tried last year for public financing for the two-year $115 million project, but lawmakers balked. The state remains responsible for $89 million related to the failed 38 Studios deal, which has been widely criticized for being pushed through in 2010 with little public debate.

The new plan by Mass.-based High Rock involves the same amount of state aid as last year, but the company is now proposing the state contribute $9.75 million annually for four years, starting in the coming fiscal year.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has expressed skepticism over the proposed state investment for the project, given lean budget times. A spokesman for Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed didn’t immediately have a comment when asked her position.

Up to $9 million of the aid would be repaid to support future projects, before the owner makes a profit, and High Rock would, over 10 years, put $500,000 into a fund for improvements to Kennedy Plaza.

The lead Senate sponsor of legislation that mirrors the plan announced by High Rock in April also dismissed the comparison to former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios.

“There isn’t a 38 Studios comparison,” Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, said in testifying in favor of his bill. “This process has been completely transparent. You know exactly what you’re voting on. It’s before you in black and white.”

Several advocates for the low-income and the homeless spoke against the legislation, saying the money could be better spent, including on housing for the homeless or more teachers in schools.

“If we don’t give some more money to help the homeless, and we give all this money to this, to me it doesn’t make any sense,” said Frank Nolan, an advocate who used to be homeless himself.

The so-called Superman building is the most distinctive in Providence’s modest skyline. The redevelopment plan calls for 280 apartments as well as retail and office space on the first and second floors. High Rock hopes a state investment will secure $80 million in new equity, debt and federal support. It is also seeking a tax agreement with the city.

The developer’s team said the project would create up to 250 permanent jobs and at least 1,000 construction jobs. Several construction industry representatives testified in favor of it June 4, saying a major project is desperately needed to revive the economically hard-hit field.

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