Development in Tiverton


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!”

“The Mall”

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.

“The Casino”

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.

  • John Loughlin

    Justin your advocacy for more revenue for town fathers (and mothers) to spend is surprising. What gives you the least bit of confidence that gambling or a Mall will result in lower taxes? Is it possible they will just spend everything they get and when the overhead they built with the “extra” money gets too large? They’ll raise taxes again! Look at Lincoln home to Twin River? Six fire districts and 300K in chiefs salaries. Not exactly a paragon of efficiency. Your advocacy of good government built on gambling is a foundation built on sand – which you should know from your building days is not a good idea. And FYI, that Mall was on its last legs long before Wal-Mart moved.

    • Justin Katz

      I guess I’m not as sure of the powerlessness of the people in local government as you are, and as I once was. There will be a lot of local opposition to this project just because, and a large group of voters who make the project contingent upon direct taxpayer relief could make the difference, and although it would obviously take work, that reality could affect how the revenue is handled.
      After all, we have a financial town referendum, now, that secured a 0.0% tax increase last year and may very well hold it to 0.9%, this year. At the very least, town officials know that a large new revenue stream would be up for the people to claim via direct democracy.
      In a town of Tiverton’s size, I also think people can learn. I’ve been thinking of the sorts of people whom Tiverton could have in its elected offices if Tiverton 1st hadn’t made things so nasty some years ago. A high-ranking military officer, high-level executives and project managers from major corporations, a hotshot lawyer, a policy expert, savvy small business owners, some with extensive experience in construction. Being part of the local clique only gets a politician so far when faced with real-world business decisions.
      And then there’s the other side of the table. Within hours of my telling reporters that special tax deals for Twin River would kill support, Twin River was out saying that it would not seek any tax deals. Words are words, but Twin River (and the State, by the way) need the support of the people of Tiverton, too.
      Re: New Harbor. It was dying before Walmart, and Walmart gave it new life. QED, that means it had new life.

      • P3CPilot

        Justin: Arguing about that potential casino site on Stafford Road in Tiverton is useless. The site’s frontage belongs to the state of RI; the lot is mostly wetlands and the Sucker Brook flows through the site. Sucker Brook is the feeder stream from Stafford Pond to the south, flowing into the South Watuppa Pond. It would take years just to overcome the environmental/wetlands issues on that site before one stick of wood could be erected. Just tell everyone good luck and have a nice day.

        • Justin Katz

          That’s a fair point and one of the details that will have to be worked through as the project moves from proposal to reality. I’d caution overconfidence in your view, though. The state is desperate for casino revenue, so gears might move more quickly than usual.

  • John Loughlin

    Furthermore, why gaming revenue? Atlantic City casinos close seemingly everyday, Las Vegas is down, Foxwoods is down – yet we want to increase our dependency on gaming? Makes absolutely no sense. Instead of doing the actual hard work in government to grow a real economy we are drawn like moths to the quick buck for government to spend. And if you think for a moment that the advocates in Tiverton for increased spending on – whatever – name it, will just say, “oh you’re right Justin, lets cut taxes” you are using some sort of controlled substance. So in Justin’s world, we build a casino in Tiverton, gather up a ton of new revenue, increase spending and when the bottom drops out, which surely it will, raise taxes to cover our new found municipal lifestyle. No thanks!

    • Justin Katz

      I don’t disagree that the government shouldn’t be in the gambling business. It doesn’t seem to me that this is increasing dependence on gambling. The state’s already dependent.
      There are multiple layers to this. Statewide voters and taxpayers should not consent to a large investment in moving the casino. If the casino is going to move, then Tiverton voters and taxpayers should insist on a good deal. At that point, the casino would be like any business that wanted that land for that purpose.
      Regarding local advocates, I don’t think Tiverton 1st and the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee and the labor unions are just going to roll over, but that’s the political fight. The solution is to win it. If, as the process unfolds, it looks obvious that it can’t be won, then taxpayer support should flip to the “no” column.
      We’re never going to win everything if our assumption is that we’re always going to lose. That attitude is why so many people are leaving Rhode Island. It’s arguably the core problem that has to be fixed across the state.

    • Tommy Cranston

      As I have said the “ask” for Tiverton taxpayers should be the immediate and total end of the car tax.. NO “phaseout”.