By William Hamilton
PBN Staff Writer
Bartlett Dunbar has big plans for the steel hull that sits in the shipyard at Promet Marine Service Corp. in Providence, and he’s looking for the state to give him a helping hand.
Dunbar, a prominent Newport businessman, is attempting to transform that hull into a 200-foot-long, three-masted tall ship based in Rhode Island that will carry crews of tuition-paying students to Bermuda and the Caribbean, or take people on day trips on Narragansett Bay.
The price tag for the project: about $6 million.
The ship already has a name, the Oliver Hazard Perry, and the nonprofit that Dunbar is leading says it has raised more than $1 million in donations and pledges to get the venture off the ground.
But a legislative move to make Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island Inc. eligible to receive a $1.7 million loan guarantee from the state has some raising objections similar to those voiced last year when the R.I. Economic Development Corporation approved a much bigger guarantee for Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios.
Some lawmakers and a local lender question whether it’s worth the gamble, with the state backing a loan for a ship that will leave Rhode Island waters frequently and will have a limited resale value if the nonprofit fails.
“This is a startup with so much risk, it’s not even funny,” said Henry A. “Bud” Violet, president of Ocean State Business Development Authority, a private, nonprofit alternative lender. “There isn’t a bank in the world that would do this transaction without a guarantee.”
Indeed, last year the project’s supporters came before the Industrial-Recreational Building Authority, an EDC-affiliated agency, carrying a loan agreement with BankNewport that said the bank would provide $1.7 million in financing, if the loan was guaranteed through IRBA’s insurance program that covers up to 75 percent of tourism-related, recreation projects.
But the nonprofit was turned away because IRBA’s statutes required eligible projects to be “land based.”
That’s what led Dunbar – who owns the popular waterfront retail center Bowen’s Wharf in Newport – to appeal to Aquidneck Island’s General Assembly delegation, which includes Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed.