Two different historical Woonsocket buildings tell different tales. One is burnt down and plagued with pollution concerns. The other is standing strong, a well-built stalwart from another generation. But one thing draws these two together: The buildings have been abandoned for years and their owners are elusive.
The first is the Seville Dye Mill building located at 299 First Ave. It was built in 1903 by the owners of Enterprise Dye Works who had been operating in Woonsocket since 1870, according to the Edgar Allaire files. Allaire was a journalist for the Woonsocket Call who chronicled the manufacturing industry in Woonsocket during the mid-1900s. A full archive of Allaire's work is available at Woonsocket Public Library.
Enterprise Dye was a full service dye outfit that dyed, bleached and worsted textiles. Enterprise owned and operated the building until 1980 when it was sold to Nick Picciotti.
Nick ran the dye company with his brother Robert. They renamed the company Seville Dye Associates. Picciotti wrote in a letter to then-President Bush that when he first bought the company it specialized in “dyeing cloth in big, steamy dye vats.” He said, “the plant was old, the machinery was old and the business was barely getting by financially.”
Over the next 15 years, Nick and Robert built the business back up. They updated the machinery and added on to the building. The City pitched in by helping them to control the costs of the significant amounts of power and water they were using. By 1995 the company employed more than 500 people and had sales of more than $51 million, according to Picciotti’s letter. But by 2001, with globalization bearing down on them the company began to struggle.
On July 14, 2001 Seville Dye was put into receivership, a form of bankruptcy. As the company went down, the city tried to help any way they could. Former Woonsocket Mayor Susan Menard helped by having the city build a massive water storage tank across the train tracks from the building to help with the wastewater pretreatment process in 2003. But it was too little, too late. Seville Dye folded before they could ever use the tank.
For seven years the mill at 229 First Ave. was left to rot away. Department of Environmental Management and Hazardous Waste officials toured the facility in 2006 and noticed leftover pretreatment pits that hadn’t been cleaned, used up chemical barrels and oil left in a 20,000-gallon storage tank, according to DEM reports.
This past winter a massive . On February 28, 2011 the main mill building was set on fire and burned down. Black smoke caused by the rubber roof poured hundreds of feet above the building and residents of First Avenue had to be evacuated. An arson suspect has still not been named.
A month has passed since the building burnt down and little demolition has been done. Nick Picciotti died two years ago and bequeathed all his assets to his family, including his brother, Robert, who is now believed to be responsible for the property.
Robert Picciotti, who was reached briefly after the mill burnt down, said that he has no plans for the building and said liens had been taken out on the property. Picciotti owes Woonsocket $1.6 million in back sewer, water and taxes from when Seville Dye was still in operation, according to Mayor Leo Fontaine. Moussa Traoe, an ex-employee of Seville’s who rents a property from Robert Picciotti on River Street, said that Picciotti also owed National Grid $200,000.
Despite Picciotti’s overwhelming debts, he still lives comfortably. Narragansett Assessor records indicate that he owns a home valued at $918,000 in Narragansett. The property is located 1,000 feet away from the ocean and has its own private tennis court.
Picciotti’s failure to manage his properties in Woonsocket has left city officials guessing as to what to do with it. Matt Wojcik, the city’s economic development director, said that “Taxpayers of this city cannot afford to take over this property with what may be in the ground,” due to the site's pollution concerns.
Wojcik said the property is still Picciotti’s responsibility, but that safety is a growing concern.
“Between the roof collapse and the fire, conditions have changed drastically there,” said Wojcik. He said that the city would not be confident in taking over the property until extensive environmental testing had been done on the site.
Tom Boving, a University of Rhode Island geosciences professor who has studied ground pollution, said that dye plants are “notorious for pollution problems to the soil and the groundwater.” The Department of Environmental Management, the agency responsible for conducting environmental testing, is not legally allowed to access the property without permission from the landowner unless an environmental violation is reported. Only one environmental violation has been reported at the property.
Wojcik said that he hopes the DEM will provide counsel to force Picciotti to allow city or state officials to test the property. He said the city could not undertake the legal work themselves because the city has no money.
If testing was done it could come up clean or contaminated. If clean, the land would still be valuable after the building is fully demolished.
“To me,” said Wojcik, “The ideal situation is we get permission to get some testing, we come back with a clean bill, we have authority under the law to finish the demolition, we put a lien on the property for the demolition and then we work something out with [Picciotti].”
The other abandoned mill, at 84 Fairmount St., is in many ways Seville’s opposite. It is a towering 300,000 square foot monument to early 20th century masonry. The floors of the four-story building are made of concrete reinforced with rebar. The pillars in the basement that hold the structure up are five feet wide. Built of concrete with a brick veneer, the building is virtually fire proof, according to the “Centennial History of Woonsocket.” Wojcik said that “for many reasons it is a gorgeous building.” The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Local wool magnate Jules Desurmont constructed the building in 1910 to house his newly founded Jules Desurmont Worsted Company. He was the last of the woolen textile giants to locate their business in Woonsocket, according to the Allaire files. Desurmont was given a 10-year tax exemption by the city to open up his business in Woonsocket, a common occurrence during that time, according to historian Ray Bacon of the Rhode Island Historical Society. In 1910, the mill employed 350 people.
"The Book of Rhode Island" (1930), wrote about the mill's "unusual spic and span appearance" and further said that "This is a feature of which the company is particularly proud, it being their conviction that a well kept mill inspires the workers in it to use the extra care necessary to the production of yarns of the finest quality."
The Desurmont company specialized in making worsted yarn using the “French process.” No finished goods were produced at the mill. In 1952, the mill was purchased by a partner of Desurmont, Eugene Bonte. Bonte renamed the company the Bonte Spinning Company and continued to make unfinished textiles. The Bonte family operated the mill until 1974. Later, the mill was purchased by American Tourister and used to make suitcases. It’s unclear when they abandoned the mill. Given the fact that largely unfinished goods were being created throughout its history, pollution is not a significant concern at the property.
The mill was purchased by Hanover Capital LLC of Blackstone in January of 2006 for $1.3 million, according to Woonsocket assessor’s records. Hanover Capital, at the time, was made up of three partners: Ron Wirks, a Pawtucket man known in the area for mill development, Francis Gamwell of Van Nuys, California and an unnamed Australian man, according to Matt Wojcik.
Almost no information exists on Hanover Partners and phone numbers for Wirks and Gamwell could not be found.
The men had intended to update the mill into a new condo complex utilizing state and national historic tax credits, according to Wojcik. In 2007, when work began, Rhode Island had one of the most lucrative historic tax credits in the United States. It provided developers of recognized historic properties with up to 30 percent of their qualifying rehabilitation construction costs. The federal historical tax credit would have provided an additional 20 percent of rehabilitation costs.
However, in 2008, the state ended its historic tax credit amidst significant budget problems. The tax credits were too expensive to continue during the recession.
Faced with a 30 percent increase in construction costs, Hanover Capital walked away. They failed to pay taxes on the mill in 2009 and in 2010, a $29,000 tax-lien was bought on the property, giving temporary ownership to Paul Matthias.
Matthias declined to comment on the work he is doing on the property or his future plans for the building.
Wojcik said that Matthias had plans to start a small business in some of the outbuildings of the mill complex. He said this would be good for the city in that Matthias would be responsible for properly securing the building.
Two juveniles were caught vandalizing the building on Feb. 8. They had kicked down the back door and were breaking windows and lights and throwing around metal inside the building, according to police reports. Most of the windows on the exterior are broken and a large brush pile has accumulated in the side yard.
It would take a large business to update the primary mill building to the modern times, said Wojcik. Just to fix the leaking roof would cost thousands of dollars, he said, not to mention a new fire suppression system, which normally costs a dollar per square foot. The building is 167,240 square feet. He said the small business that Matthias is proposing would only be able, “to generate a small amount of cash flow.”
Despite this, Wojcik said that Matthias owning the property wouldn’t be a terrible situation: he would at least pay the property tax and keep the property secure.