Downtown hotel project pits construction workers against hotel union

Representatives from the Procaccianti Group pitch a hotel project to the City Council. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A developer’s request for a special tax deal to build a $40-milion hotel in the heart of downtown has led to a tug of war between two powerful labor unions, with the construction trades urging city officials to support the deal and the local hotel workers’ union trying to secure better-paying jobs.

Caught in the middle of the dispute is the Providence City Council, which heard an hour of public testimony Thursday on the 12-year tax-stabilization agreement that has been requested by the Cranston-based Procaccianti Group to build a 150-room extended-stay hotel in place of the vacant Fogarty building on Fountain Street.

“There is exists a conflict among important community-based organizations in our city,” Council President Luis Aponte said following the hearing. “We’re hoping those issues will resolve themselves and clearer heads will prevail.”

The Procaccianti Group, which has owned the property since 2005, is seeking to pay no taxes during a three-year construction phase before it begins to gradually phase in tax payments to the city over the following nine years. Representatives from the firm said the 12-year deal would generate $3.7-million in tax revenue for the city.

The project has the blessing of the construction unions because the Procaccianti Group has promised that all 200 jobs created during the development period will go to union workers. Union members dressed in green shirts and carrying signs filled the council chambers to show support for the hotel.

Union members filled the City Council chambers for Thursday's public hearing. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)
Union members filled the City Council chambers for Thursday’s public hearing. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

“We cannot wait any longer. We need jobs and we need them now,” Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, told the council Finance Committee during the hearing.

On the other side is Unite Here Local 217, the local hotel workers’ union that has long clashed with the Procaccianti Group on other hotels in the city. The union has not said it opposes the project, but it does want the hotel staffed by union members.

Chris Cook, who works for the Omni hotel in downtown, said being a union member has led to a “guaranteed living wage, a pension and a predictable schedule” that helps him support his family. He said he hopes the Procaccianti Group would consider a labor-peace agreement similar to the one CV Properties LLC has promised to enter into if its build another hotel on the vacant I-195 land.

Aside from the spat between the unions, the project has the support of several downtown business owners.

State Sen. Josh Miller, who owns several downtown bars and restaurants, said he understands both sides of the debate, but urged the council to support the project. He explained that he’s tired of hearing his customers complain about having to walk past the vacant building. Ruth Ferrazzano, who owns Murphy’s pub, said the current structure is “dark dirty, and dangerous,” a sign of the “old Providence.”

Aponte said he believes his colleagues support the development of the hotel, but acknowledged the hotel workers make a compelling case. He said the council wants to ensure that the jobs the city would subsidize go to Providence residents and “help expand that economic opportunity beyond the board room.” One councilor, Carmen Castillo, is a member of the hotel workers’ union.

As the council president, Aponte finds himself trying to appease all sides.

That wasn’t easy Thursday when Majority Leader Kevin Jackson accused the construction unions of walking off the job for a charity project at the Billy Taylor House in Mount Hope. He accused the workers of trying to “pit my community against me” in order to win support for the project. Sabitoni denied Jackson’s charges, but questioned why the hotel workers have so much influence over the council.

Aponte said he doesn’t expect the council to consider the proposal until it returns from its August recess.

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Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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