RI leaders hail groundbreaking for Wexford innovation campus on 195 land

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders gathered Monday for a groundbreaking on the Wexford Science + Technology innovation campus, hailing the project as transformative for the old 195 land and a sign of economic momentum.

Gov. Gina Raimondo was joined by the state’s entire congressional delegation and General Assembly leaders at the ceremonial event along Dyer Street, near Brown University’s 220 Dyer St. building and the Garrahy courthouse. More than 100 attendees sweated under a hot sun as they listened to speeches praising the project and the efforts that went into it.

“It is a symbol to the rest of the world that Rhode Island has momentum in this 21st-century innovation economy,” Raimondo declared, arguing the Wexford campus will be “a transformative project for Rhode Island.”

Raimondo’s comments were echoed by others on hand. “The Providence Innovation Campus is now on the path to becoming a flagship Rhode Island institution,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said it “will become the catalytic centerpiece of our revitalized I-195 Innovation & Design District.”

The Wexford project is not technically the first one on the land freed up by the relocation of I-195 in the Iway project – that distinction belongs to Johnson & Wales University’s Center for Science and Innovation. But it is the first put together by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, the entity set up in 2011 to guide the reuse of the land. And it comes as some state leaders, notably Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, have been grumbling about the slow pace of redevelopment there.

Joseph Azrack, the 195 Commission’s chairman, drew laughs at the groundbreaking when he compared getting projects going on the land to a full jar of pickles.

“The first phase, the first project is like getting the first pickle out of a jar. It’s extremely difficult, almost impossible,” he said. “The second pickle is hard, but not as hard as the first. And by the time you get to the third pickle, they practically jump into your mouth.”

Wexford, a Baltimore-based developer, builds innovation-oriented campuses in cities that are home to research universities and tech companies. Raimondo, a Democrat, first announced the project in May 2015 and has made it the centerpiece of her vision for turning the vacant former highway land into a new hub for high-paying jobs.

The project begun Monday is the first of a potential three phases that could total nearly 1 million square feet if it all comes to fruition. The $158-million first phase includes a nearly 195,000-square-foot innovation building and a hotel. Three major tenants have already leased about 75% of the innovation building’s space – the Cambridge Innovation Center, Brown University’s School of Professional Studies and Johnson & Johnson. Construction is expected to take about two years.

Raimondo said Boston’s booming Seaport District, where the Cambridge Innovation Center also has a presence, is a model for the Jewelry District. “We hope to create a version of that here, and I think we’ll be able to,” she said. The governor also said she thinks it’s “highly likely” Wexford will follow through with the second and third phases of the project, though those are only in the discussion stages now.

The Wexford project wouldn’t be happening without significant outlays of taxpayer money to subsidize it. The 195 Commission and the R.I. Commerce Corporation have authorized more than $30 million in subsidies to offset part of the project’s cost. The Raimondo administration commissioned an analysis by the consulting firm Appleseed that suggested the project will generate about $100 million in revenue over the next 20 years.

Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat who has clashed with Raimondo over the years, has been a vocal critic of the Wexford project, attacking the heavy use of taxpayer subsidies to spur the development. “It’s always good to see a groundbreaking in Rhode Island – that’s always good news,” he said Monday. “But then you have to ask the question, at what cost?”

“Politicians always want to give away more money. That’s easy, to get a crane in the air,” Chafee said. “The question has to be asked, where do you draw the line?”

Raimondo has argued the incentives are necessary to boost the economy and compete with neighboring states that also offer them.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook