Is Warwick poised to be the next hot tourist destination for people from all over New England? Hopefully – the scenery is pretty nice after all. But even if the city isn’t the next big thing in the traditional sense, in terms of people seeking convenient, high-quality medical treatment from elsewhere in the region – a term branded “medical tourism” – Warwick might be a true leader soon.
On Monday night the Warwick City Council unanimously approved a zoning change to pave the way for biomedical company Ortho Rhode Island (Ortho RI) to construct a large, four-story office and surgical center in Warwick adjacent to the Crowne Plaza, and construction could begin in early 2019.
The 100,000 square foot facility would be built in two phases and is touted to have the potential to bring in $30 million in payroll and add an assessed commercial property value of nearly $1 million in net tax revenue to the city’s tax rolls – in addition to as many as 200 new, high paying permanent jobs and 125 temporary construction jobs.
However, Ortho RI is just the beginning of what city officials and property owner Carpionato Group hopes will become a bustling biomedical hub in the middle of Warwick. With Ortho RI as an anchor, the hope is that other medical facilities will be interested in moving to the city.
“Generally, birds of a feather flock together,” said Kelly Coates, president of Carpionato Group, during his presentation to the council. “It will only right now be Ortho RI, but we look forward to ‘Ear, Nose and Throat RI and to Eye RI, or whatever they're named, to come forward and occupy, and generate super paying jobs, great benefits and the newest technology.”
Then, once a hub for medical care is established, the idea is that the friends and family members of patients getting procedures done will be staying in local hotels and dining in local restaurants, and shopping at local businesses – hence the term medical tourism.
“The idea of a medical hub here in Warwick at this site is very exciting,” said Bill DePasquale, city planning director. “Having this cluster of medical office uses only brings in additional funds and employment to the great folks of the city of Warwick. People will be staying longer in the hotels, they'll have discretionary income and spend it locally.”
Coates mentioned during an announcement in August regarding Ortho RI’s plans to build its facility in Warwick that Carpionato would be willing to add an additional 100 rooms to the Crowne Plaza, in addition to $12 million in other renovations that has already commenced. He said on Monday that, in theory, the medical hub in Warwick should create that extra demand for hotel rooms.
“As we get more medical tourism we'll get more demand,” Coates said. “We don't need more hotels necessarily in Warwick, we need more hotel demand in Warwick and then more hotels to follow, so that's what we're proposing here.”
In addition to its unanimous support from the city council, the project gained unanimous support from the planning board and the planning department. Attorney for the developer, K. Joseph Shekarchi, mentioned how Carpionato held meetings with Mayor Joseph Solomon and stakeholders – including abutting neighbors – to address concerns over traffic, lighting, hours of operation and landscaping.
“I feel very comfortable that we have heard them and addressed them,” Shekarchi said of abutters.
Ward 1 Councilman Rick Corley asked some questions about traffic implications, to which Coates replied that most traffic would be coming directly to and from the Route 95 ramps nearby. Coates mentioned an extensive traffic study was conducted to show most traffic would flow in and out through the exit on Greenwich Avenue that has a traffic signal.
“I'm the gatekeeper for the Crowne Plaza. I don't want anything that would hurt it,” Coates said. “I'm more worried than any neighbor on traffic. We studied this out on detail and we are comfortable with the science that says it works well.”
The zoning change that was required in order to ease limitations regarding parking and building height did away with a zoning overlay that had previously been approved that added a layer of residential zoning to the property.
“It’s just peeling back the onion,” explained DePasquale, who added that the planned building was still “incredibly consistent” with the city’s comprehensive plan. He said that Warwick was poised to find an economical “niche” through medical tourism, given its central location in Rhode Island, easy access to a major interstate, an international airport right next door and an interstate rail system as well.
“We know with this transitioning economy, the city of Warwick needs a more balanced tax base,” DePasquale said. “We see the struggles we have in retail, so we need to reinvent ourselves. Medical tourism has tremendous job opportunities and job growth.”
Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister felt that Warwick could be a community to take that niche and emerge as a leader in the growing field.
“This medical tourism is a very hot new field. Rhode Island, and Warwick especially, is going to be the leader in this, because I know of other areas and parts of New England who want to get going on this and they are not as far along as we are,” he said. “So, this is a real feather in the cap for the city of Warwick that we are going to be a leader in medical tourism.”
When asked, Coates didn’t want to pin the project down to a definite timeline at this juncture, but said a realistic timeline for total completion of both phases of the project would be between two to three years from now.