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Heritage Harbor project faces uncertainty

The Heritage Harbor Museum may be dramatically scaled back to deal with the financial problems that long have plagued the ambitious project. To cut expenses, the museum laid off seven of 18 staff members this summer, including executive director R. Mark Davis, while its governing board reviews financial plans.

Under consideration now, says Walter Stone, the Providence lawyer who is the board’s vice president, is using only half of the space in the old Narragansett Electric power plant for the museum, devoting the rest to other projects. "One of the possibilities, in addition to a museum, may be to include a substantial amount of that space as a parking garage," Stone says, "and maybe have a really fancy restaurant up on top of that, that overlooks the whole bay."

Stone says a mixed use of the South Street building might help sell millions in tax credits that are among the project’s assets. This might answer the critics who have questioned whether Heritage Harbor can draw enough visitors to pay its $59 million cost and operating expenses (see "Museum piece," News, December 6, 2002).

In an interview last week, Stone says $20 million has been raised, but that an important part of the financing is $5 million in state bonds approved by voters last year, plus a proposed $9 million federal loan to be backed by the City of Providence. But government officials are sitting tight on those funds for now.

State budget officer Rosemary Booth Gallogly, who met with Heritage Harbor officials in mid-September, was not convinced that all the pieces — including the federal loan — were yet in place. Saying she hopes the project succeeds, Booth Gallogly adds that there’s "a little bit of uncertainty in terms of whether our money would actually be the first piece of funding and whether or not the other funding would come forward, or we would end up with a museum that maybe wouldn’t be completed."

Thomas Deller, Providence’s planning chief, says the city wants a consultant to review attendance and other projections before committing the city to back the federal $9 million loan. He says Heritage Harbor asked it to delay hiring the consultant while it revamps its plans. "Everyone is hopeful that it’s a viable project," Deller says. "I don’t think we have enough information at this point to say one way or another."

Meanwhile, one of the museum’s pioneers — historian Albert Klyberg — says he has retired from his post as Heritage Harbor’s director of museum and program at age 63 so he can write books.

Stone says the goal of showcasing Rhode Island’s ethnic and industrial history remains in place, but that leaders are trying to think "outside the box" in completing the project. For example, he said a possible parking garage might link to a monorail that would circle downtown and "take you from Heritage Harbor, from the parking garage, to the Convention Center, to the Children’s Museum." In any case, Stone says a parking garage and a major restaurant "would certainly be something that would generate the kind of revenue that both the city and the state would like to see."

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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