When voters head to the polls in November to decide whether the state will borrow $50 million to renovate three Rhode Island College buildings, some may suspect it means the end of plans for a shared nursing center with the University of Rhode Island.
Not so, Rhode Island College leaders say, even though the home of the nursing school is one of the spaces being upgraded. To expand the program to meet demand, the school will still need a whole new facility.
But voters won’t be the only ones with an interest in whether the joint nursing center proposed for Providence’s fledgling Knowledge District still has life.
At least five private developers have been asking the same question.
Those five companies responded this spring when the state solicited ideas for a public-private partnership to build an advanced nursing center.
A five-member panel put together by the R.I. Department of Administration to review the responses called them “sincere interest” from the private sector and an indication that building a nursing center through a partnership should work.
“Based on the responses, the committee believes the concept and practicality of a [public-private partnership] is achievable for this project,” Ronald N. Renaud, executive director of the Department of Administration, wrote on behalf of the review panel in a summary acquired through a public records request.
The state has kept secret the individual proposals for the nursing center, responses to a Request for Information posted in March, citing exemptions from public-records law for submissions under RFIs that never become formal bids.
But the level of interest described in the summary may raise new questions about why the advanced-nursing center proposal was passed over by the legislature in this year’s budget and whether it can be revived.
The companies responding included a mix of development groups with both commercial and residential focuses. They were: Intercontinental Real Estate Corp., Harbor East Development Group of Rhode Island LLC, Gilbane Development Co., Crary Realty, Infralinx and Carpionato Group.
“I think it improves the case for a public-private partnership,” said Director of Administration Richard Licht about the level of interest from the private sector in the nursing-center idea.
The joint nursing-center idea was born after both URI and RIC proposed expanding their nursing schools and building new facilities at an estimated cost of $80 million.
Building a single facility was estimated to cost $65 million and would have the added benefit of stimulating the health care cluster the state is trying to grow in the Providence area it has rebranded the Knowledge District.
URI President David M. Dooley championed the shared center and building it through a public-private partnership in which a developer could add speculative office, laboratory or other commercial space to a structure that featured the school’s as guaranteed anchor tenants.
But whether leadership at Rhode Island College liked the idea was not as clear.
In 2010 when the idea was first being discussed, RIC teachers opposed it out of concern it would jeopardize the college’s independence.
The R.I. Board of Governors for Higher Education, which sets policy for both URI and RIC, supported the joint nursing center and RIC leadership has said it supports those policies.
Recently, Rhode Island College reaffirmed support for the advanced-nursing center proposal, but said getting the $50 bond referendum passed was now the priority.
“Right now, Rhode Island College is interested in a joint advanced-nursing center, but we are focusing on the $50 million bond,” said RIC Interim Director of Communications Karen Rubino.
The $50 million bond will pay for the renovation of the two oldest and busiest buildings on campus, Gaige Hall and Craig Lee Hall, plus smaller improvements to the Fogarty Life Sciences Building where the nursing program is located.
Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee supports building a joint advanced-nursing center in Providence, but his dual-track approach to the idea may not have served it well this year.
While actively exploring the public-private partnership, Chafee included a $65 million bond proposal to build the nursing center in his fiscal 2012 budget. That budget was being debated when the Request For Information on the public partnership was posted for interested developers.
When Democratic leaders in the General Assembly passed over the nursing center for funding, they cited uncertainty surrounding the proposal as a prime reason.
With the nursing center left off the list of borrowing referendums this year, the next chance to get it on a ballot and fund it that way would be 2014, adding another point in favor of those who think a partnership is the best way to do it.
If the state does pursue a partnership, the next step would be to issue a Request For Proposals, a more detailed and formal version of the RFI done this spring.
As for the proposals from the five developers, each was based on a 25-to-30-year lease and included a 130,000-square-foot nursing facility with, in all but one, speculative retail, hospitality, research and other commercial uses, according to the summary.
Renaud said one of the proposals had included residences in a kind of gated condominium complex around the nursing center.
Intercontinental Real Estate Corp. of Boston, which owns the Waterplace condominium towers in downtown Providence, and Carpionato Group of Johnston, which has developed dozens of shopping centers in Rhode Island, including Chapel View in Cranston, did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
A spokeswoman for Gilbane Development Co. of Providence declined to discuss the company’s submission. Harbor East Development Group and Crary Realty could not be reached for comment.
The RFI summary says finding the right piece of land on which to build the project remains a major uncertainty and that the state could expect substantially more attractive offers if former Interstate 195 lands could be used.
“We believe if [I-195] land is made available for purchase at fair market value there will be more competitive pricing available for this project and generate significantly more proposals,” Renaud wrote in the summary. •
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