After fifteen years of neglect and haggling, everyone’s still in the game to buy Rocky Point — including voters, in a $10 million bond question this November.
Illustration by Andy Potts
Filmmaker David Bettencourt peers through the viewfinder of his Canon 5D MKII and draws a bead across Narragansett Bay. It’s an ancient vista carved by the glaciers and, perhaps, admired by the native people once populating these shores, or by Adriaen Block, as he mapped its contours — most definitely by Captain William Winslow, who purchased a piece of Rocky Point in 1847 to develop a tourist destination.
The panorama at Bettencourt’s back is not so inspiring. Amid the twenty-foot heaps of splintered lumber and pastel-colored cinderblocks, bittersweet and poison ivy muscle out of faults veining the asphalt of Winslow’s legacy. Rocky Point ended its life as an amusement park in 1995, when bankruptcy closed it and the rides were auctioned off. Its bones have since lain picked-over, broken and dishonored. Bettencourt is here, on a warm Saturday morning, with his crew and three of Rocky Point’s most ardent supporters, to capture new images that might stir the public’s heart.
“The stuff we’re interested in today — legends,” Bettencourt tells his small audience. “We’ll show you.”
John Howell, publisher of the Warwick Beacon; Mark Garrison, owner of an adjacent pick-your-own blueberry farm; and George W. Shuster Jr., a lawyer, are founding members of the citizen posse that has been riding to the park’s rescue as the Rocky Point Foundation. They are game for legends, so the men pluck off the green briar as they scale a rocky outcropping leading to the top of the Skyliner. At the hill’s crest, with the ruins spread below, Bettencourt spins tales of murder, gypsy curses and ghosts. He has become the park’s biographer by virtue of his award-winning valentine, You Must Be This Tall. Screened before sold-out crowds at the Warwick Showcase Cinema in 2007, the film explored the state’s attachment to the place where its native sons and daughters stole a kiss on the Ferris wheel, ate clam cakes with grandpa or snagged that first summer job.
“People talked about the park as if it was a member of their family, and I was really impressed by that,” Bettencourt says. “But in the end people neglected it. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone.”
For the moment, Rocky Point lives in people’s memories and ambitions. The foundation hopes there are enough of the former to support the latter. Working with the city of Warwick and the state Department of Environmental Management, the Rocky Point Foundation is hoping to buy the eighty-three acres still in federal receivership with the proceeds of a bond referendum. The morning shoot would provide the raw footage for a public service announcement in support of their campaign.
If anyone can sell Rocky Point back to Rhode Islanders, it’s Bettencourt. The last sixteen years have been a hard slog. In 1994, the park’s then-owner, Moneta Capital, revealed that the park owed its creditors $9 million. Two years later, the park entered the limbo of federal receivership. Since then, private developers, public officials, environmentalists and the Wampanoag Indian tribe have been jockeying to acquire the 123-acre parcel boasting a mile of shoreline on Warwick Neck. In 2002, a consortium of developers hatched a plan to build high-end condominiums on the site. But a year later, when the property went to auction, Rocky Point’s receiver, the U.S. Small Business Administration, placed the winning bid of $8.5 million. In November 2003, a South Carolina development firm won a second round of bidding. The U.S.
District Court accepted Vanderbilt LLC’s $25 million offer, and the developer and the city of Warwick set to wrangling over the proposed residential development. For the next four years, Rocky Point’s fate was debated in courtrooms and meeting rooms and council chambers, while vandals torched the Big House, then the Cliff House, and the city ordered the remaining structures razed. In 2007, the parties reached an impasse just as the real estate market was collapsing, and the deal imploded.
The developers had originally agreed to front the city enough money to match a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration grant to buy the park’s best acreage — forty-one acres that encompassed the shore. When Vanderbilt withdrew, the city had to scramble to find the money. Warwick persuaded the state’s Department of Environmental Management to throw in $1.2 million and the city cobbled together $800,000 from various accounts. They signed the papers on the morning of December 31, 2007, hours before the NOAA grant expired.
“This started as a dream,” says Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. “People told me: You’re not going to get the shoreline. They thought I was crazy until the day we closed. The city now owns one full mile of unobstructed coastline.”
The newest plan is a $10 million state bond referendum to be voted on in November. The Rocky Point purchase would share space on the referendum with a roughly two-acre coastal parcel in Providence, once occupied by the Shooters waterfront club; improvements to Fort Adams that might buoy the state’s chances to bring the America’s Cup race back to Newport; and other, smaller projects. DEM Director Michael Sullivan is hoping that there’s enough a-little-something-for-everyone to encourage passage. Historically, he said, Rhode Islanders have been willing to borrow to preserve open space.
“It’s an abysmal financial time in this state,” Sullivan concedes. “But it’s the time when Rocky Point is available. We have three highly valuable public spaces on the bay, so we could achieve the dream of an island park system, with a ferry or a shuttle that could move people from Warwick Neck to Providence to Newport.”
Mark S. Hayward, the SBA’s district director, has his own aspirations for Rocky Point: to sell the property for fair market value, and return the money the federal government has fronted to the taxpayers and the investors.
“We’ve been abundantly candid to everyone involved that the number is significantly north of $10 million,” he says.
Even if the bond referendum passes, even if the state finds a private partner to kick in the rest in exchange for developing part of the property as a boutique hotel and restaurant, for example; even if Hayward decides that the arrangement is solid enough to present to the court for approval — under the rules, another bidder could sweep in and scoop up the property for 10 percent more. Hayward still regularly fields inquiries from private developers.
“Everybody is in the game,” he says. “Nobody is excluded.”
None of that deters the boosters in the least. George Shuster is a Warwick native, for whom Rocky Point was his neighborhood Disneyland. He envisions it as the centerpiece of a city greenway that runs inland through a series of defunct lots up the spine of Warwick Neck, connecting the park to the old trolley line.
“I don’t know of any other issue where you hear an overwhelmingly positive reaction that brings out the best memories of their lives,” he says.
The camera crew finishes capturing the park’s decline from atop the Skyliner’s rusted stanchions. The group picks its way down through the scrub to the paved badlands. Shuster looks around and smiles.
“I can still populate everything in my mind,” he says.
Everybody’s got a Rocky Point dream.