NORTH KINGSTOWNâWhen the former Ryanâs Market, located at 70 Brown Street, was finally purchased back in November of 2009, the news was met with great fanfare and optimism about the return of a central shopping market deep in the heart of Wickford.
Thursdayâs announcement that Wickford Marketplace was closing its doors, however, was met with a much different reactionâone of shock and confusionâand, in the week since that announcement, more questions than answers remain.
Paul Conforti, the managing partner for Ocean State Job Lotâs restaurant division, which runs the building, notified North Kingstown Town Council President Liz Dolan last Thursday afternoon that, effective immediately, Wickford Marketplace was officially closed.
The decision comes on the heels of a back-and-forth battle between Conforti and the council over several issues related to town ordinances, the latest of which involved the Marketplaceâs attempt to provide patrons with outdoor seating that the council ultimately shot down.
For Conforti, the decision to shut down Wickford Marketplace wasnât easy but it was inevitable given what he felt was the townâs negative attitude towards the business.
âWell, it seems like since we opened the store, weâve run into challenges with the town,â he said.
âAt first, we applied for a license to operate a hot dog cart in our own parking lot across the street and that license was denied. Subsequently that decision was overturned, but that was the first challenge that we faced. Later on, things like our ice cream vendor, Inside Scoop, put up a small neon sign in the window and we were told that it had to be taken down.
We reinstalled awnings on the front of the building and on the valances we put words like âcoffeeâ and âprepared foodsâ and âdeliâ and we were told we had to take that down or turn it around because we didnât have the proper permit and so weâve run into multiple issues.â
Conforti said the issue that made the decision final was the patio seating.
âWe were told by the town that the rules indicate we canât put tables and chairs on our patio because we donât have a bathroom on the first floor,â he explained. âWe feel as though it was in the best interest of the town and consistent with the goals the town has established to allow us to put those tables and chairs there and we also considered them critical to the success of the business.
Wickford is a struggling area and we felt, from our perspective, in order for the business to be successful, we needed to have those tables and chairs and when it became clear at the town council meeting that we werenât going to get support for that, we decided it was in our best interest to close.â
Conforti appealed the decision to the state, asking for an exception given the Marketplaceâs restrictions related to its septic system but was denied, he said, thanks in large part to an âimpassionedâ plea from council member Charlie Stamm at the meeting.
Stamm, who said he was only at the meeting to observe and doesnât feel his speech swayed the state board either way, says he feels Wickford Marketplace was treated like any other business in town and was just asked to follow the rules in place.
âThe thought in some way, manner or fashion that the Wickford Marketplace owners are being discriminated against or persecuted against is simply untrue,â he said. âItâs our intent to try to be even-handed and fair in everything we do. Unfortunately, the owners of the Marketplace have tended to either ignore or flaunt the requirements and do as they wish rather than obtain the necessary prior approvals which, in most cases, are quite simple to achieve.â
Stamm felt the patio seating issue was the perfect example of the ways in which the Wickford Marketplace owners refused to follow the rules and regulations set out by local and state ordinances.
âThe seating was not contemplated or disclosed in the plans they filed and had approved,â he said. âThe seating just appeared about a year and a half ago. They, on their own initiative, put out chairs and tables because they decided that they wanted to do it. They didnât pay any attention to the fact that there are requirements that have to be met before that kind of seating can be established. The point is this is a fairness/equal treatment issue. The other merchants in town do abide by these requirements, they do have public restrooms available, they donât have neon signs in their windows.â
Regardless of the decision to shut down Wickford Marketplaceâthe only aspect of the business that is still operational is the Inside Scoop ice cream stand located insideâboth Conforti and Stamm agree itâs a shame to see a local business have to shut down in this economy, especially a business in such an âiconicâ building.
âWell, I think the closing of any business in the village is sad,â Stamm said. âWeâre trying to encourage business to come into the area, doing whatever we can at the council level to make sure we have we have friendly town employees, a friendly planning commission, building inspector, building department and so forth to try to make the process easier for folks to come in and, certainly, once they come in and then leave, weâre disappointed.â
As for the future of the building, Conforti says, thatâs still up in the air.
âWe own the building and weâre not sure whatâs going to happen yet,â he explained. âWe feel as though itâs an important building, a landmark building. Certainly the news coverage that the closing generated would indicate that itâs a building that people pay attention to so, for now, weâre just going to wait and see.
We donât have any immediate plans other than weâre going to continue to support John Bucci and the Inside Scoop who are in there who, we think, will have a busy summer there. Weâre open to inquiries if anyone is interested in talking to us about possibilities with the building.â