By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
BRISTOL, R.I. — It’s been called many different things over the years, but for more than a century, the former National India Rubber Co. on Wood Street was the town’s soul. During its heyday, the industrial complex employed more than 1,200 locals, and families set their clocks to the mixture of solids, liquid particulates and gases belched from its smokestack at 7 a.m., noon and 5 p.m.
Today, the 14 acres of buildings, originally built in the 1860s and now on the National Register of Historic Places, are known as the Bristol Industrial Park. It also could easily be called a reclamation project, and the Mosaico Business & Community Development Corporation, a High Street-based nonprofit, has taken on that enormous task.
Diana Campbell, Mosaico’s executive director, envisions the 280,000-square-foot property becoming an incubator space for start-up manufacturing companies and small businesses looking to grow. She can also see the property being home to a restaurant, gym, hydroponics center or brewery.
For now, though, there is a lot of work to be done. The rents are low, Campbell said, because some windows and locks are still broken, and roof leaks.
Mosaico bought the former Kaiser Aluminum Corp. site for $1.55 million in late 2010, using two low-interest loans to secure ownership of a property left in shambles by years of absentee management.
The nonprofit’s small staff spent most of last summer cleaning up the debris-strewn grounds. A building filled with hundreds of mattresses was emptied, 275 tires scattered across the property were removed, and three boats hidden in overgrown brush and several abandoned vehicles were towed away. The exhaustive clean-up effort cut down mounds of pervasive weeds and unearthed three Fourth of July floats lost among the rubble.
“The place was full of garbage and trash,” Campbell said. “It was basically being used as a dump. The neighbors love us for cleaning it up.”
The industrial park, a sprawling complex of mill buildings along Wood Street, between Shaw’s Lane and Franklin Street, deteriorated for more than a decade after Kaiser Aluminum left in the late 1970s.
After watching one development plan after another fail, the local community, in the early 1990s, created Mosaico to address the various needs of the Wood Street neighborhood, such as the derelict Kaiser property and its mostly vacant buildings, poor street lighting, vacant storefronts and unsafe sidewalks.
During the 1990s, the newly created Mosaico Business & Community Development Corporation bought part of the former U.S. Rubber Co. property and, with help from other community organizations, converted former mill buildings into housing for the elderly and assisted living.
Today, about 50 percent of the Bristol Industrial Park is vacant. There are about 75 employees at the 24 companies based there, including two landscapers, a boat builder, a furniture maker and a welder, who has been there since 1983.
Mosaico’s focus now is bringing the facility up to fire and building codes — an expensive undertaking — and preparing the industrial park for new tenants. The current tenants are grandfathered in, so long as Mosaico continues to make improvements.
It is. Among the projects currently underway are the repointing of the park’s lone smokestack, which will then be rented by Verizon to house a cell phone tower; tuning-up a well-maintained Cummins engine found in the park that will then be used to power the still-to-come new fire sprinkler system; rebuilding the park’s former fire station into tenant space; and remediating petroleum contamination found on the site.
To rehabilitate the park to today’s standards will cost another $2 million to $4 million, including about $1.2 million for building and fire code upgrades, according to Campbell. With grant funding, she said, that would probably take another two to three years; without it, a lot longer.