Scott MacKay Commentary: Behind The Warwick Airport Development Blossom

Jan 9, 2015

Warwick has become a Rhode Island economic success story. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses what the rest of us can learn from the state’s second-largest city.

T.F. Green Airport in Warwick has helped spur economic development in the city, in ways not seen in other parts of the state.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

One afternoon about 15 years ago, Lincoln Chafee and Scott Avedisian hiked up to the top of the parking garage at Green State Airport. As jets lifted off,  they looked at the huge swatches of undeveloped land nearby. Both quickly came to the same conclusion.

``Someday, this is going to be the some of the most valuable land in Rhode Island,’’ Avedisian, who was then the new Warwick mayor, recalls he and Chafee saying almost simultaneously. In those days, Chafee was a U.S. senator.

Now, that vision is gaining traction. The area surrounding the airport, branded City Centre  is home to about $300 million in new investment in hotels, shopping attractions, offices and residences.  In a state where every day brings a new report about the Rhode Island business climate being so bad that companies are fleeing the state, the Warwick story is an instructive lesson in how government investments lead to economic activity and jobs.

Avedisian, who was has been Warwick mayor since 2000, has been a constant in the rebirth of the area. It is refreshing to speak with him about the Warwick boom. Unlike so much of the ``I, me and myself’’ culture that infects our state’s politicians, Avedisian acknowledges that this success took the cooperation of a passel of Rhode Island political figures and a strong dose of patience.

One of the lessons is the ancient one in politics: You can get a lot done if you don’t need to take credit for it. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if General Assembly members could check their egos at the door long enough to put the brakes on such time-wasting pettiness as the unwritten rule that duplicate legislation be approved in both the House and Senate so individual lawmakers can boast that it was their bill?

The Warwick rejuvenation started with a bold move by Gov. Bruce Sundlun in the early 1990s. Despite a recession and the gloom of the credit union collapse, Sundlun pushed the plan to rebuild the airport and make it a modern transportation hub. There were many skeptics, but Sundlun recognized the need for a strong airport as a foundation for business growth.

Warwick residents have long had a fraught relationship with the airport. In the neighborhoods around Green, noise from jets taking off has always been a prickly issue, interrupting sleep and backyard barbeques.

Putting together a plan to extend the runway to accommodate larger jets and make other safety improvements sparked a 13-year battle among residents, city council members and the corporation that runs the airport. That was finally resolved last year.

Much of the land around the airport was polluted, the legacy of the manufacturing era. It took gobs of federal money and state environmental approvals to restore these so-called `brownfields’ so that development could occur.

Avedisian says that Lincoln Chafee, then a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was instrumental  in securing the federal support for cleaning up the area and extending the commuter rail train service to the airport hub. ``The entire Washington delegation, deserves credit because they all were strong supporters,,’’ said Avedisian.

Avedisian also cited contributions from former Gov. Lincoln Almond, Sen. John Chafee and  Dr. Kathleen Hittner, who was appointed chairwoman of the Airport Corporation when Lincoln Chafee became governor.  ``She really turned things around at the airport,’’ said  Avedisian.

A succession of Warwick mayors, including Francis Flaherty, now  a Rhode Island Supreme Court justice, and Joseph Walsh, now a top Statehouse lobbyist, also played roles in running  city government well, and in Walsh’s case, setting Warwick on a path to a solvent pension system for police and fire department retirees.

Even more remarkable is that Warwick’s development blossom is occurring without the tax incentives and government subsidies to developers that too often seem to be the price of progress in other Rhode Island communities. Sure, government, had a role to play with the transportation and environmental investments, but now the private sector is footing the bill for all this new construction.

Some in Rhode Island’s insular political community label Avedisian, ``mayor for life.’’ Clearly his 15 years as mayor are a stellar argument against term limits. Continuity can be a fulcrum for progress. Among his accomplishments: establishing policies with the planning department to ensure speedy decisions on development proposals.

There were halts and sputtering starts along the way.  Yet, now Warwick has more hotel rooms than either Providence, the state’s capital, or Newport, a tourist mecca. Avedisian says one of those hotels, the Hilton Garden, built on land once polluted, had the highest occupancy rate of any Rhode Island hotel last year.

Warwick is not, of course, without problems. The city’s school population has dropped from about 20,000 to 9,000 over a generation. Closing schools is always a wrenching process and some residents aren’t going to be pleased about the results.

But in a state that has too many communities staggering under the weight of high taxes and bloated legacy pensions costs, are there any urban mayors who wouldn’t trade places with Avedisian?

Scott MacKay's political commentary can be heard every Mopnday at 6:50 and 8:50 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics' blog at RIPR.org