Mayor Joseph Polisena was sworn to secrecy, but he had trouble containing his excitement for more than a year.
He could finally break his silence when Market Basket announced it would be opening its first Rhode Island location next year in Johnston.
The mayor said “rumors [had] started flying all over the place” in town, but he remained mum on the matter until the press release broke the news on March 10.
“I was like Pinocchio, I was sworn,” Polisena said via a phone interview on Tuesday morning. “They had to go through some process with the state. I did notify [Gov. Gina Raimondo], I spoke to her every other week on the project. They helped move things along on the state level and with the Department of Transportation. She was covertly helping me. [Market Basket] didn’t want this to get out, and we kept our agreement that I didn’t go telling everybody until two weeks ago.”
Polisena said the company was looking at holding a groundbreaking in March, but those plans have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. He said they will likely wait until there is “some sense of normalcy” restored before a formal event is held.
Market Basket is slated to take over the lot formerly occupied by BJ’s, across from the Johnston Senior Center on Hartford Avenue. The mayor estimated that the space has been empty for at least more than a decade.
“It will infuse some business and traffic into that area,” Polisena said. “It’s a perfect location. They’ve got a red light there. They’ve got two entrances to the facility. They saw Johnston as an opportunity for their business. Quite frankly the permitting process for the town of Johnston is expedited. It wasn’t sitting on someone’s desk. We’re very excited that they are coming. This situation with the coronavirus has put the brakes on almost everything.”
The news came on the heels of more positive business development in Johnston, as the Health Services Council recently approved, 3-2, a certificate of need application for Encompass Health’s proposed 50-bed, inpatient rehab facility in town. The matter was sent to Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott for approval.
“I’m ecstatic,” Polisena said. “With all the bad stuff that is going on in the country and the state because of the virus, this is a good thing and they’ll put people to work, a couple hundred jobs. I’m also very, very happy with Encompass. We’re still moving along with our economic development plan that I put into place several years ago.”
Polisena said he thinks Johnston’s business-friendly approach was key in luring Market Basket. He said that when he met with representatives last year, he shared a familiar phrase that has become a sort of motto – “You submit, we permit.”
“They knew Johnston was a good place to do business, a great place,” Polisena said. “It’s really the center [of the state]. We’re close to Providence, we’re close to Cranston, we’re close to North Providence, we’re close to Smithfield. Hartford Avenue is a very busy road. The location of Market Basket is ideal … We have a good reputation for being very friendly to businesses and we get things done quickly. Time is money.”
The importance of a dedicated supermarket workforce is apparent now more than ever, too, as shoppers flock to purchase carts full of toilet paper, pasta, frozen foods and other items in bulk.
Polisena is hoping the frenzy calms down a bit, lest residents be left with an abundance of items they may discard once the pandemic ends.
“All the stuff I think people are buying they’ll be throwing out anyway, six or seven months down the road,” Polisena said. “There’s plenty of food. They don’t need to be stocking up on toilet paper. I don’t understand that. Some of the people in the mental health field say it’s control, I guess, perhaps I can see if people want to stock up on eggs and so forth, but toilet paper – it’s ridiculous.”