By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – Changes are once again in store at Newport's historic Lower Thames Street Armory.
City Manager Jane Howington and Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation Executive Director David McCurdy announced in a joint letter that RILF will be stepping aside as property manager effective some time in January.
The building, whose lower level has undergone a significant transformation over the last year, with the completion of the Newport Maritime Center and upgraded utilities, has retained its use as an antiques center on the first floor.
But some people don't see the antiques center as the building's highest and best use.
Over the past 10 years, much has been made about the condition of the Armory and its seemingly abundant potential. As the last remaining city-owned property on Newport Harbor, the former militia headquarters has long been viewed as ripe for development.
In the past, the city has entertained ideas ranging from creating a Faneuil Hall-style marketplace to hosting a pirate museum. Still, the antiques center has prevailed. And after it was revealed that the former antiques manager had failed to pay the city rent, the building's oldest tenant took over.
"For over three years, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation has been managing the antiques business in the Armory building on Thames Street," Howington and McCurdy wrote in a letter to the antiques center employees and vendors.
"As the City works toward defining long term future uses for this building, the time has come for RILF to cede management of this operation to a new entity."
Promising a "smooth transition" through the process, Howington said that while there are no firm plans for the antiques center at this point, she does hope to incorporate the Armory into a broader discussion about the area in a planned Lower Thames Street design charrette.
The news is the latest in a series of episodes over the last few years concerning the ultimate fate of the landmark building, and comes less than six months after RILF declined an offer from the city to operate the Lower Thames Street facility until the city was able to develop a long-term plan for the space.
As we reported in July, RILF had initially indicated that it would have accepted a 15-month agreement with monthly rent set at $5,000 per month for the summer and $3,000 for the months of November through April, but the council ultimately chose to reduce the term by six months, and require uniform lease payments of $5,000 per month.
Citing the challenge of operating through the winter, RILF opted to decline the offer, instead opting for a month-to-month lease to ensure the Armory remained open through the holiday season.
Now, it appears RILF's involvement with the antiques business is indeed coming to an end.
Howington said that she expects to put out a Request for Proposals by the end of the week to potential contractors who would be responsible for maintaining the building, while the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation is expected to remain in its second-story office space.
At the Armory on Wednesday, vendors were busy readying for the holiday gift-giving season, which no matter what happens, is shaping up to be one to remember.