Breathing fresh life…and money…into Superman Building


STORY OF THE WEEK: Nine years to the day when the last Bank of America employee left the Industrial National Trust Building – aka the ‘Superman Building’ – top state and city leaders gathered at the State House last week to support a plan for revitalizing the vacant Jazz Age tower. The $220 million proposal calls for creating 285 apartments. Reaction broke along familiar lines: supporters celebrated the idea of bringing new vitality to a prominent downtown building that has been idle for almost a decade. Critics, generally a mix of Republicans and progressives, lined up against what they call an excess of public subsidy to benefit private interests. Supporters make the point that lessons have been learned from blunders like 38 Studios; the state money in this case won’t become available until after a certificate of occupancy is issued for the project (they also note how the funding does not include a new outlay of state money, but comes instead from existing programs). Opponents note how an envisioned multi-decade loan from Providence would come with a 1% interest rate, and how the cash-strapped city would need to kick in $5 million to boot. Aside from the back and forth, bringing fresh life to the Superman Building could shape up as a political win for Gov. Dan McKee and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, who is expected to leave that gig soon to pursue a run for general treasurer, and a legacy-polisher for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. While nothing is written in stone, this revitalization project has broad political support, and it appears far more likely to come to fruition than not.

THE POLITICS OF INVESTIGATION: Timing to politics is kind of like what location is to real estate. That’s why Dan McKee’s Democratic rivals in the race for governor quietly celebrated when the FBI recently became involved in the state-federal investigation of the ILO Group contract awarded early in his administration. McKee defends the contract and he rejects the idea that his administration did anything wrong. But news coverage of the controversy will wind up in televised campaign commercials in the months ahead, so the question of when the investigation gets resolved – and how – has big implications for McKee’s hopes of retaining the governor’s office. During an interview last week on Political Roundtable, Attorney General Peter Neronha said his general practice is to discuss the results of a well-publicized investigation once it’s completed, regardless of whether it results in charges. But as far as the timeline for concluding the probe of the ILO Group contract, Neronha is offering no assurance that it will come ahead of Rhode Island’s September 13 primary election. “Look, we always try to move things as quickly as we can,” Neronha said. “…. What we need to do is exercise our jobs and duties in a way that is adherent to the law and the facts and we’re going to take whatever time we need to do this right.”

THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR: Not everyone follows the news, but everyone is affected by the economy. That truism might help Gov. McKee, as Rhode Island’s economy bounces back from the pandemic. According to the state Department of Labor and Training, the number of Rhode Island-based jobs climbed by 400 from February to March, as the unemployment rate ticked down to 3.4% (compared to 6% a year earlier). At the same time, Helena Buonanno Foulkes remains an X factor in the five-way Democratic primary. For months, McKee’s supporters have generally considered Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea his top rival. But Foulkes is assembling an imposing campaign account – her campaign this week trumpeted bringing in a Raimondoesque $1.3 million in Q1, and she also released a detailed plan on one of the state’s top issues – housing – that includes a call, among other things, to allow single-family homes built before 1980 to be converted into multi-family dwellings and to create a new tax credit for residents of multi-family units. With the months dwindling until the September 13 primary, time will tell whether Buonanno Foulkes’ campaign team made the right call by holding off on launching television ads to boost her name recognition across Rhode Island. However, in a sign that the broadcast launch is drawing closer, Bounanno Foulkes has hired Tad Devine, the Providence native-turned-nationally known messaging maestro.

PREYING: Cases involving allegations of sexual harassment of students in East Greenwich, and inappropriate behavior in West Warwick, follow reports about the “fat tests” that took place in North Kingstown. Asked about this, AG Neronha said there’s a wider problem with children being victimized in Rhode Island. “Over the last five years over 400 children have been the subject of sexual assaults in the state of Rhode Island. That’s a tremendously high number that I think flies below the radar screen. I have 70 prosecutors here in the office – 10 of them are assigned to the unit that handles those cases. That’s the largest unit of lawyers I have in the office; I think it speaks to the problem. So yeah, it’s a significant problem in the state of Rhode Island. One thing that worries me very much about that problem is there is a lack of sufficient mental health resources for children that are victimized both in the context of sexual abuse, but also broader mental health concerns. And that’s one place where I think we really need to invest as a state in making sure that those mental health resources – counseling, et cetera – are available to all children that are victimized or facing mental health issues arising from other sources.”

COVID: When Gina Raimondo was among the high-profile Democrats who recently got infected, it was a harbinger of a rising rate of COVID in the Northeast. In fact, Rhode Island this week had the highest rate of new COVID cases, according to The New York Times. Despite that, as my colleague Lynn Arditi reports, state Health officials are sticking with making recommendations on masking rather than a new mandate. As interim Health Director Dr. James McDonald told Lynn, “In other words, what we’re really trying to do is not overwhelm our healthcare system. That’s the philosophy of the United States, it’s very different [from] China, which [has] a zero-COVID policy. This is not the policy the United States has ever taken.”

CD2 GOP: If a primary between state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz and former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung loomed as a psychic X-ray of the ideological leanings of Rhode Island Republicans, well, so much for that. Less than a month after announcing her campaign in CD2, de la Cruz announced that she will instead seek re-election to the state Senate and toss her support to Fung. With less than $100K in her campaign coffers, compared to more than $500K for Fung, and a thinly populated base in northwestern Rhode Island, de la Cruz arguably read the writing on the wall. Fung still faces a primary against former Cranston Rep. Bob Lancia (who visited Mar-a-Lago this week, in a sign of his possible support among the Trump faction within the GOP), although he can also maintain a focus on fundraising and preparing for the post-primary fight against whichever Democrat emerges in CD2.

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