Islander on board at Quonset Business Park
Rugh is a director of the Quonset Development Corporation. He is one of several representatives from neighboring communities who advocate for the interests of residents in abutting towns.
On a recent tour of the 3,207- acre park, Rugh said Quonset has a great story to tell. It accommodates an airport and seaport, and is also home to 175 companies where more than 9,500 people are employed in either full-time or part-time jobs. No exact count of Jamestowners employed at the park was available, but Rugh said islanders are among the workers and business owners.
According to Rugh, the formula for success has come through partnerships. Private businesses have invested $317 million in the park, and state and federal funds have chipped in $560 million more – federal grants lift the total investment close to $666 million. According to a recent study conducted by Bryant University, the park now generates more than $1 billion in personal income.
“People talk as if nothing has happened at Quonset Point,” Rugh told the Jamestown Town Council at its Oct. 7 meeting. But that impression is wrong, he said.
Electric Boat may be the park’s best-known company, but as of February 2012, Quonset has also become the seventh biggest auto importer in North America, according to Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The cars arrive by boat and rail at North Atlantic Distribution Inc., a company that retrofits the new models with extras made for the U.S. market.
Both 2012 and 2013 set yearly records for auto imports, according to Steven King, managing director of the development corp. On Dec. 19, 2012, the biggest auto day in Quonset’s history, 4,100 new cars arrived, he said.
Ocean State Job Lot, Fuji, Toray Plastics, Hexagon Metrology and dozens more businesses are also tenants. BankNewport recently broke ground on a new branch, and the development corporation recently opened the complex of gateway offices for small businesses. The arrival of a harbor crane in 2012 allowed the port to handle heavy equipment, including wind turbines.
However, not every enterprise has thrived at Quonset. For example, a big-box Lowe’s Home Improvement store closed after discovering the location was not optimal, according to Ted Kresse of the state Economic Development Corporation.
But the Marriott TownePlace Suites and other ventures have been successful, he said. The park also supports two museums, three free public beaches, a golf course, a bike trail and a new dog park.
Quonset is also the home port for the Okeanos Explorer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s deep-sea research ship. In addition to the research vessel that will be at pier one in Davisville for 10 years, the federal government has also invested in a new building to house NOAA’s office of marine and aviation operations.
Rhode Island’s fast ferry, the Ava Pearl, also leaves from the Quonset pier.
Meanwhile, most of the developable land has been sold, leased or is under agreement. Only 37 lots totaling 356 acres are still available, Rugh said. The smallest is 2 acres, and the biggest is 56. Four of the lots are bigger than 30 acres, and for the most part, they can’t be reconfigured due to openspace issues and the location of the railroad. But they’re already permitted, and a new business could sink a shovel into the ground in 90 days.
One in 50 working Rhode Islanders is employed at Quonset, Rugh said. Since 2005, investment in the park has generated more than 3,000 jobs and Quonset has become a statewide model for fasttracking development by moving to eliminate local planning and zoning regulations, in favor of a uniform statewide permitting process.
At Quonset, a developer is “technically exempt from local zoning and planning regulations,” King explained. Statewide, the General Assembly is looking to establish similar across-the-board rules for wetlands and septic, as well as for plan reviews. (One law was passed in 2013 to require local communities to conform to statewide septic and wetlands regulations, but the actual regulations are still in discussion.)
Those changes may cause controversy in some communities, where residents do not want development. But King said the plan is to work with the communities seeking new industry and commerce, rather than force the changes where they’re not wanted.
When the effort to develop Quonset started in 2005, King said, neighboring communities were upset about the prospect of a container port in their backyards. King described the battle as “a decade-long controversy,” fueled by opposition from people in the West Bay and in Jamestown, too. As a result, the development corporation decided there was a need “for a collective voice for all people with concerns” and established a board of directors. North Kingstown, the host town, has two directors, while Jamestown and East Greenwich each have one. The governor appoints five members and the executive director of the state Economic Development Corporation serves as chairman ex-officio and votes in case of a tie.
“By the time a proposal gets to the board, the staff has done the job of vetting,” Rugh said, so there are no issues about noise and odor that would impact residents. “The vast majority of businesses here are good neighbors.”
Moreover, a large-scale container port was never a real option, he said, and that is not the direction the business park has taken.
“That controversy is way behind us,” King said. “We have developed a master-use plan for the park, which sets forth concisely our objectives. Our plan is very reasonable in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.”
There’s no liquid fuel, coal, salt, cement scrap or other bulk cargo going through Quonset, he said.
Also, as the state economy weakened and Rhode Islanders became more concerned about jobs, the opposition to Quonset faded, King said.
The state and federal government have so far invested $665.9 million in Quonset, he said. Of that money, $100 million went for the environmental cleanup that is not yet complete. Almost double that sum paid for the construction of an airport-style access road, Route 403. According to the state Department of Transportation, the federal government invested $159 million in Route 403, while the state kicked in $40 million. Another $235 million went to improve the freight rail that is now twice as big.
The result is a park with superior infrastructure that takes advantage of the features that made Quonset and Davisville unique as a naval port – a port with access to rail, roads and air, Rugh said.
Quonset’s airport has a longer runway than at T.F. Green, according to Katherine Trapani, planning manager. Although the Navy maintains training helicopters and other craft at Quonset, the business park also features a private jet port, Rugh said.