The fate of a proposed redevelopment project in downtown Newport – halted since March – is now even less clear following allegations of fraud against two Northeast Kingdom developers, Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros.
Today, banners attached to chain-link fences surround a large pit of crumbling building foundations. Patches of grass grow through cement.
One banner exclaims, "Making way for Newport's future."
But for now, it's a giant hole left by developer Bill Stenger's proposed Renaissance Block Redevelopment project. And there are many unanswered questions about its future.
Jo Ann Brooks can see the pit, or what she has nicknamed “little Beirut,” from the window of her Main Street jewelry store. Brooks' store, Newport Jewelers, once displayed a sign in the window praising Stenger's commercial project. She and her husband had high hopes it would bring revenue to the area.
But now, she says, the view is different.
“If you look at it, it's bombed out cellar holes – that's what it looks like to me,” she says. “But it's ... what's left of the demolition when [the developers] started a project.”
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission unsealed a civil lawsuit claiming massive fraud by Bill Stenger and his partner Ariel Quiros. The feds charged the two with misappropriating investor money that was supposed to spur development in economically-depressed areas such as Newport.
The Renaissance redevelopment is one of several projects linked to the fraud.
Like many in the Newport area, Brooks still supports Stenger. She doesn't think he would intentionally harm the community.
“He only has the best interest of Newport. He has from day one,” she says. “Bill is a local man who is a wonderful man. He's not a liar or a thief like people keep calling him.”
Down Main Street at Newport City Hall — still within eye shot of the Renaissance Block — Newport Mayor Paul Monette agrees.
“Bill's a part of this community," Monette says. "He's been here for 32 years, and I know I've worked very closely with him. So that's where it came as a shock to me. His heart is in Newport.”
Mayor Monette says the fate of the project is still up in the air. He hopes his meeting with Gov. Peter Shumlin and other lawmakers will answer whether the property is even still available for development.
Longtime Essex-Orleans Sen. Bobby Starr also still has faith in Stenger. In his Statehouse committee room, Starr says he state and local officials will soon learn the answers to many questions, such as who even owns the Newport property.
Starr ticks off other key questions: “Did the city get anything in writing that would protect the city from leaving just a giant hole there? Can we as an area do anything with the property? Is it in receivership or not in receivership? If it is, how long do you expect this to go on?”
But, Starr adds: “There's plenty of questions to be asked. But I've been to too many of these things to expect a lot of answers."
Newport officials say if these questions about the Renaissance Block aren't answered by 2017, the current zoning permit only allows for it to be used as green space.
Rep. Michael Marcotte, whose district includes Newport, worries about the future of the property.
“The odds of meeting the 2017 deadline are realistically, probably pretty slim," Marcotte says. "Park space would be definitely be better than what's there now."
On Main Street in Newport, Ed Lipinski walks by the empty lot nearly every day. He thinks a lot about what should go there and what he hopes won't. “I think a park would be a waste of the space,” he says. “It would encourage drug abuse and alcoholism and all sorts of stuff."
When asked if he’d be disappointed if the space became a park, Lipinski says, “Yeah, probably.”
For now, what was supposed to be a keystone project to transform Newport remains a blasted out hole on Main Street.