A year after fraud allegations put development projects in the Northeast Kingdom funded by the federal EB-5 immigrant investor program into federal receivership, Newport is taking steps to revive at least one of the stalled projects.
If you’ve been to Newport in the past year, you’ve seen it. A demolished city block, surrounded by a chain link fence, in the center of the downtown. It’s known as the Renaissance Block, where developers Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros had big plans.
Instead, the city’s been left with a block of downtown cellar holes.
"The site ... previously housed a number of rundown buildings that mostly had rental housing and apartments in them – and not in very good shape," explains David White, president of White and Burke Investment Advisors. "Before everything kind of came to a halt, they had gotten approval to demolish those buildings, so right now it’s just simply old foundations."
The city has hired White and Burke to evaluate the existing plans for the Renaissance Block to see which, if any, of those plans are still viable.
"Their concept for the building under the EB-5 program was that it would be mixed-use," says White. "It would have retail and/or restaurant use. I think a brew pub on the first floor. There would be a hotel, some of which would be longer-term suites. And then some housing as well."
But, White says, it’s not as simple as finding another developer to take on the project. That’s because the Renaissance Block was just one piece of the EB-5 puzzle in Newport.
"Their concept was to bring several uses to Newport simultaneously," he says. "They weren’t just looking at this site. They were also working to bring in this biotechnology firm – AnC Bio — that would have been less than a mile away, just walking distance really. And then also they wanted to do a hotel and conference center right on Lake Memphremagog, on the shores."
All together, White says these projects might have had the potential to reinvent the Newport marketplace. But without the other EB-5 projects, the Renaissance Block plans may not stand up on their own. He says the key to successfully rebuilding the block will be figuring out what uses make economic sense for Newport now.
"Inevitably, downtowns are synergistic," says White. "And the various elements can either support each other or drain each other. And we’re looking for [are], what are the elements that exist and are there other elements that can be brought in that can help downtown as a whole, while specifically focused on this site?"
A group of Newport citizens has gotten a head start on that line of thinking. Not far from the fenced-off Renaissance Block is The 99 Gallery and Community Center. That’s where Diane Peel and other residents have been meeting to brainstorm ideas for the redevelopment.
"What we’re going to be wanting to do is help out the consulting firm to be more in touch with what goes on here in Newport," says Peel. "So we’re going to try to get our ideas together and make proposals to them about what we would like to see, or about what goes on here and what would benefit us."
Peel says her goal is to see a multi-use building that would benefit community members and tourists alike.
"I think it would be great to have something downtown that is welcoming to everyone – to people that come here to visit as well as people who live here," she says. "And also, will help the downtown as far as being able to provide more retail space."
Ideas that have surfaced so far include a maker space, a place for local artists and craftspeople to work and sell their wares, a music venue and an upscale thrift shop. Peel says she personally would like to see a mix of retail and community spaces under one roof.
While it’s easy to look at the demolished block in the middle of downtown Newport as an eyesore, Peel sees it as an opportunity. She says the first Renaissance Block plan felt like it was dropped on the city out of nowhere.
"And then to have this wonderful second chance, when there’s actually time to talk about it. I think it’s great," she says. "It’s a great opportunity for us."
And while David White says there will be tough decisions along the way, he also sees it as an opportunity for improvement.
"Certainly it was an eyesore before, when they were rundown buildings," he says. "It’s still an eyesore, but of a different sort, now that it’s empty. But it’s in the core of downtown, directly across the street from City Hall. It’s got wonderful historic buildings around it. And so the site certainly has potential."
How best to tap that potential will be the talk of Newport for months to come.