Twenty-nine families lost their homes due to foreclosure in Tiverton in 2014. That’s the most in Newport and Bristol counties, without even adjusting for population. Newport had 15. Little Compton, zero.
Going back to 2011, which is the range of a recent report by HousingWorksRI, Tiverton’s number is 72. Only Bristol beats that — barely, with 73 — but only because it had a bad year in 2011. And Bristol’s population is about 40% bigger.
Seventy-two Tiverton families lost their homes over the last four years despite the supposed economic recovery. The 29 in 2014 represented an increase of 107% from the prior year. The only nearby town with a bigger increase was Warren, which also happens to be the only nearby town with a higher tax rate.
With Tiverton in the statewide spotlight based on economic development proposals, residents whose first instinct is to oppose large projects should think of those dozens of their neighbors. At the very least, we need to have an honest conversation about the specific proposals, without screaming “mall!” and “casino!” as if trying to clear a room by shouting “gun!”
Looking at the first photograph accompanying this story in the Providence Journal, yesterday, about a proposed multi-use development (“the mall”), one would think the developer wants to set off a development bomb in the middle of the countryside. That location is not “rural” by any stretch. It’s Main Rd., right off the highway. Within 100 yards is a large assisted living complex. Down the hill is an expansive village of high-end retirement town houses. A short way up another hill is (arguably) the town’s largest commercial area, which begins to blend seamlessly into the southern streets of the Massachusetts city of Fall River.
None of that evidence must necessarily lead one to support a large development in that spot, but let’s be honest about what we’re seeing in the picture. That’s a vast backyard for a handful of households who don’t have to pay taxes on the land. There’s no public use. It might make the 10-second drive-through time slightly more pleasant for those residents who pass by, but ultimately, the project won’t change the “character of the town” for most residents.
“So many people moved here because they wanted to get away from the congestion of the city,” says Carol Herrmann, in the article. This is a single development right off the highway. Obviously, it will affect the immediate neighborhood, with some spill-over in the northern part of town, if drivers from nearby parts of Fall River use back roads to get there. It doesn’t transform Tiverton into Cranston. That said, local government has (appropriately) been a mechanism for imposing conditions to force the developers to accommodate their future neighbors, reconfiguring exits and moving buildings around.
As a member of the town’s school committee (herself a member of the teachers union in next-door Westport, Massachusetts) and a vocal participant in the big-budget advocacy PAC, Tiverton 1st, Herrmann has been an active force in driving up the town’s taxes. She and her husband (a doctor who advocates for socializing Rhode Island’s healthcare system) were among the crowd pushing for massive tax increases a few years ago, including at the financial town meeting at which Herrmann’s allies jeered at me when I noted that the tax increase equated to Christmas presents for my children.
She should remember that many people moved to Tiverton because they would be able to afford their houses, here. Their needs and interests have to be balanced against those of Herrmann and the venture capital CFO with whom she appears in the photograph. Those two may be able to afford the $3.7 million in debt service the town pays each year (the majority for three new elementary schools built in recent years), but many of their neighbors cannot.
If anything, the casino proposed with much controversy, yesterday, is likely to have less impact on the town’s character. The stretch of road between the site and the highway is little more than an access road. Because the facility would be right on the Massachusetts border, the likelihood of out-of-state patrons’ using back roads to get there is minimal. Moreover, the proximity of urban Fall River means that the canned warnings issued by this anonymous advocacy tweet are likely overblown, because the additional encroachment is minimal. This isn’t a gambling house plopped down in the middle of nowhere.
Other concerns apply, of course. Some Rhode Islanders have legitimate moral objections to gambling, and others think it an illegitimate role for government to be in the gambling business as a monopoly. Those are separate questions, though, from the use of a piece of Tiverton land.
In an overblown initial reaction, my friend John Loughlin declares, “just look at the New Harbor Mall [diagonal across the highway exit ramps in Fall River]. It’s empty. It can’t even support a Radio Shack.” That mall was doing reasonably well until one of its anchors, Walmart, expanded into a larger building one exit to the north. Moreover, the Harbor Mall has actually been a leading contender as a site for a casino in Fall River. This history gives not only a sense of the area, but also a nod to the reality that Fall River’s economic development schemes are outside the reach of Tiverton residents.
With a casino project on our side of the border, residents would have a say in how it is implemented. The town government can (we have to hope) negotiate intelligently and forcefully, and local taxpayers can insist that the benefits go directly to them.
For most of the town, the impact will probably be little more than scenery. After driving past the deteriorating mills of Fall River and the empty mall, drivers will pass one more sign of development before reaching roads that no casino-goer has reason to use (unless, perhaps, they’re tourists looking for a little country flavor).
Once residents are on those roads, not only will they be in the same ol’ Tiverton that they’ve grown to love, but they’ll be passing the homes of neighbors who might be that much better able to afford to stay.