Providence City Council takes up ProvPort resolutions amid promises made to community

The Providence City Council is meeting Thursday, December 15th at 6pm to take up the ProvPort resolutions and other tax exemption agreements. The community, now invited to the table, will be watching and hoping for the outcome they worked so hard to achieve.

Rhode Island News: Providence City Council takes up ProvPort resolutions amid promises made to community

December 15, 2022, 3:48 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

The Providence City Council is taking up the controversial ProvPort resolutions at a special meeting on Thursday evening, and activists and community leaders such as Linda Perri, President of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association and Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Port Authority, are on board, at least tentatively.

A deal has been worked out to pass the lease and bond agreements, with the caveat that they will not go into effect until the City Council approves a tax exemption agreement with ProvPort, which will include community involvement in the Master Planning Project and tie ProvPort to the city’s current Climate Justice and future Comprehensive Plan.

For previous pieces on the new ProvPort deal, see:

Chris Waterson owns and operates the family business, Waterson Terminal Services, that oversees the operation of ProvPort under a fairly complicated arrangement started in 1994 under an unusual organizational structure. ProvPort is a nonprofit, a 501(c)3, and the City of Providence is a partner in that organization. The Providence Redevelopment Agency floated 30 year bonds to fund the Port, and ProvPort got a 30 year lease on the Port land. If the lease ends, the City has the option to repurchase all of the real estate, improvements, and contracts for a dollar. ProvPort was given the responsibility to pay all the debt service on those bonds.

After it was operational 22 years, ProvPort worked with the Cianci Administration in 2006 to float a new bond and new 30-year lease agreement that will end in 2036.

That brings us to today. ProvPort has big plans to get in on the ground floor of offshore wind energy development. Every inch of ProvPort and more will be needed to make this a reality. Four years ago ProvPort began discussions with the City about re-bonding and extending the lease for the duration of those bonds so ProvPort can be whipped into shape for the massive expansion of off shore wind that is expected.

The deal reached between ProvPort and the City was sprung on the public in late November. Providence residents – especially those who live around ProvPort and are hit with the health costs of living so close where childhood asthma rates are among the highest in the country – reacted with alarm. The deal contained no assurances about climate justice, greening the Port, or phasing out fossil fuels and other dirty industries. All of that was left as unwritten and vague promises that were to come in the form of a Master Plan to be executed after these agreements become legally binding contracts.

Chris Waterson thought the City of Providence was keeping the community in the loop and soliciting ideas from the community about the deal. “We learned the hard way that that was not happening the way we understood,” said Waterson at a recent meeting of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association. After a Providence City Council Finance Committee hearing that rammed the deal through over the strenuous objections of the community, the lease extension, bond deal and tax exemption agreement were indefinitely tabled after the full City Council failed to find the votes needed for passage at a special meeting two weeks ago.

The deal is back before the Providence City Council at tonight’s special hearing, which, if all goes according to plan, will present modifications, made with input from community groups, to the legislation before passage. Because the resolutions were tabled, all modifications to the agreements will have to be done by the City Council through a series of votes. In a sense, the City Council will be rewriting the legislation on the fly.

From the beginning advocates opposed to the Port deal said that the overall goal of developing wind energy jobs in ProvPort and reducing dirty, fossil fuel related industries was something they wanted. But after decades of environmental battles in the Port, this community needed assurances, in writing, between ProvPort and the City, and those written assurances needed to be in these resolutions.

The plan has the tentative support of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association and the People’s Port Authority, because it now puts in writing the guarantees advocates were demanding at previous council meetings, such as adherence to the city’s Climate Action Plan. But community members will be watching carefully tonight to make sure everything they worked out with the City Council and ProvPort is included in the final resolutions.

The lease extension and the bonds require one passage of the City Council. The tax exemption requires two passages. This means that the next City Council, in January, will have the final say on the deal. And according to advocates, the lease extension and bonding will have a trigger mechanism and only go into effect after the tax emption resolution is passed by the next city council.

Ultimately, there is, for the first time, potential for the community to be at the table as ProvPort continues to evolve. The Master Planning Process will be done in collaboration with the community and in conjunction with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which has recently begun its once in a decade revision, per state law.

The Master Planning Process for ProvPort and the City’s Comprehensive Plan will be a joint effort. What ProvPort will be looking for are opportunities to locate port parcels not under ProvPort’s control – that may be underutilized or being used for things that ProvPort doesn’t control – and figuring out how ProvPort could expand into those areas and use them for things that offshore wind developers need, like cable, turbines, or even solar projects. One thing ProvPort has agreed to: There will be no expansion of fossil fuel industries in the Port of Providence.

Right now, says Chris Waterson, “there simply isn’t enough port space and port infrastructure… to meet the goals of the federal government, which right now is 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.”

To accommodate the need, port space is needed in Providence, Davisville and at the new East Providence terminal, as well as in New Bedford.

“Everything that we’re focusing on is offshore wind,” said Waterson. “I talk about offshore wind more than I talk about anything else. Simply, the future of the Port of Providence is not fossil fuels. The future of the Port of Providence is supporting clean offshore renewable energy, and we think we’re in a very good position to capitalize on that.”

The Providence City Council is meeting Thursday, December 15th at 6pm to take up the ProvPort resolutions and other tax exemption agreements. The community, now invited to the table, will be watching and hoping for the outcome they worked so hard to achieve.

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