Chief Rainone Gym, legendary Johnston basketball court, renovated

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As boys they bounced basketballs up and down the hardwood court.

As successful adults with careers in the building trades, a group of Johnston men have been working hard to bring the Chief Rainone Gym back to life.

“Over the past few weeks there has been quite a bit of activity there,” said Christopher Correia, director of Johnston’s Recreational and Community Services. “We’d like to have the Rainone gym refurbished to assist us in our programming, and we’d like to have open gym time for Johnston youth to play there again.”

The 71-year-old facility at 45 Mill St. shows its age. Accessibility issues presented challenges both inside and out.

“We’d like the gym to handle overflow from the new indoor recreation center, which gets quite busy,” Correia said. “Renovations are long overdue.”

Town officials have decided to use a hybrid funding approach to rehabilitate the gym. About half of the nearly $1 million project will be funded by taxpayers, while the other half has been contributed by local unions and businesses donating workers and materials, Correia explained.

“We’re working with donations and donated work when possible,” he said. “It’s sort of a hybrid approach.”

The facility was built in 1950 and dedicated to former Police Chief Anthony Rainone in June, 1962.

The gym’s builder and first owner was the Acorn Corp., which sold the property to Rainone, who eventually donated it to the town.

Michael F. Sabitoni, 53, a lifelong Johnston resident and business manager for the Rhode Island Laborer’s District Council and also president of the Rhode Island Building Trades Union, has been playing ball in the gym for the past five decades.

“I played there as a kid, and I till play there as an old man,” Sabitoni said. “I grew up playing there in that neighborhood. It’s just a special place, not only for me, but for hundreds if not thousands of kids who grew up playing there.”

Sabitoni still tries to get onto the Rainone Gym court once a week, even through construction at the site. He started playing there as a neighborhood kid, around the age of 6 or 7 years old.

“It’s just like something from your childhood,” he said.

Sabitoni now has three sons, who have also formed a relationship with the vintage court.

“It’s just a special place for people like me, and even a couple of generations before me,” Sabitoni said. “Things are coming together. I think people, when it’s complete, the facelift we’re giving it, will provide fond memories for a new generation.”

Sabitoni used his contacts in the building trades to find workers and construction firms with a shared interest in saving the facility.

Salvaging the court was a top priority.

“Gym space is really at a premium these days,” Sabitoni said. “I can’t wait to see it complete. Giving back to the town that I still live in, that I love, my hometown, that makes me happy.”

Correia hopes the project will be finished by the start of next school year.

“And if not, we at least want to get it done by winter,” he said. “Hard to tell if there will be delays. Construction material costs are getting higher and higher. We’re hopeful we can finish by fall.”

The site has been plagued by graffiti in recent years. The town has added LED security lights and has asked neighbors to report any suspicious activity they may witness.

“Please if you see potential criminal problems there, contact the Johnston Police Department,” Correia said.

For now, ongoing construction will focus on repairing the gym roof. Work has primarily moved outside, restructuring the parking areas into an upper and lower lot.

New bathrooms will be installed. A new foyer will be built.

“We can’t do much inside until the roof is fixed,” Correia said. “Our last priority will be the court itself.”

The town plans to salvage the hardwood basketball court, which will be stripped and sanded.

“We plan to sand down to bare wood, and replace any boards or planks, re-stripe it and refinish it,” Correia said. “There’s a lot of history and nostalgia in that old court.”

Former Rainone gym kids, like Enrico DiGregorio, of DiGregorio Construction, and Joseph Caparco, Regional Northeast Apprentice Coordinator for Operators Union Local 57, have played integral roles in the project.

Correia said Johnston residents and local firms have really pulled together. He credited James White and Steve Rogers, of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 57, Chris and Anthony Corsinetti, of Hartford Paving, JR Vinagro Corp., Joe Casali Engineering, architect Richard Cardarelli, and Steve Rainone, of the Laborers’ Union, among others, who all contributed “pro bono” work and “sweat equity” in an effort to save the gym.

“It’s been a steady evolution,” Correia said. “We’re all working together, all these entities and the town.”

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena credits his son, Town Council Vice-President Joseph Polisena Jr., with the initial idea to renovate the gym, and request $600,000 in town funds for the project.

“Obviously the gym has been around for a long time, and we have a lot of men who used it as kids, who have become successful businessmen, who are now donating in-kind services,” Polisena said. “I think it will ensure that the youth in that district, as well as the adults, can recreate.”

Polisena said the project is vital for the residents of the town’s Thornton neighborhood.

“At least people down there will still have a gym,” he said. “The Rainone Gym has been there for a while. I think fixing it up was a great idea from my son, and it was a smart move.”

The project would have been very difficult without contributions from local construction firms.

“We’re very grateful to those people in the construction industry who have basically donated their time and their resources,” Polisena said. “They’ve helped us get to our goal quicker, and made it less of a burden on our taxpayers.”

Nearby facilities are vital for the town’s youth, according to both the mayor and his son.

“I played there when I was young,” Polisena Jr. said. “That gym has been in rough shape for a while. It needed to be updated.”

While a new recreational facility and courts at Johnston War Memorial Park provide play opportunities for some regions of Johnston, the Rainone Gym caters to residents living near the town’s southern border with Cranston.

“It’s really important because we have the rec center open and Johnston Memorial Park, but those are both toward the northern and central sides of town,” Polisena Jr. said. “(Rainone Gym) is important for kids, who should be able to hop on their bikes and get to a gym on the southern side of the town.”

The facility will feature a newly paved outdoor basketball court, in addition to the indoor amenities.

“We’re not just renovating the inside, but there will also be a court and some hoops outside of the gym,” Polisena Jr. said. “It’s important for kids on that side of town to have an option to play as well.”

The project would have been difficult, if not impossible, without help from generous patrons, who all trace their formative years back to the squeaky old court inside Rainone Gym.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without them,” Polisena Jr. said. “It’s as much for them as it is for the town. A lot of them played there when they were children. Now it comes full circle. They played there when they were younger and now they’ve dedicated time and materials so kids can play there again.”

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