NORTH KINGSTOWN – When you’re fed up with freezing temperatures, icy roads and blackened snow piled high, it’s nice to think about warm-weather activities as a distraction.
Some people pore over seed catalogs, planning their spring gardens. Barry Gross is enmeshed in plans to refurbish the old Johnson’s Boat Yard site that he’s owned since 1992. He’s already started, dredging three years ago to increase the capacity to 60 slips plus 24 moorings in Mill Cove.
Now, under the new name Northwick Boat Yard, the Narragansett-based realtor and developer is upgrading the facilities again.
Scheduled for demolition is the enormous, derelict, corrugated-metal-covered main structure that’s become an eyesore over decades. “I’m putting up a new service building,” says Gross, who is also thinking long-term.
“I’m remodeling all of the existing buildings; four total. I’ll get all this done and find new management. Figuring all the construction, we’ll have some in place by summer.” A year from now he’ll further modernize with another new building, razing others that are time-worn.
Even though it will be a work in progress, Northwick, located on Esmond Avenue, off Fowler Street, will be up and running June 1.
It should be noted that Gross’s father was the late South County real estate legend Barry Gross, who was not thrilled with his son’s first choice of employment.
“I was a commercial fisherman for 10 years. This was back when you could make a good living.” What he accrued from his hard labor, he declares, gave him the financial heft to buy Johnson’s. (He also, probably inevitably, followed his father into real estate.) The boat yard was opened in the 1920s by Ralph Northup “Back then it was marshland,” Gross explains. “He would just skid the boats out and bring them back to work on them.” From 1963 to 1992 it was owned by Bill Johnson, a popular Wickford figure; Gross acquired the place from him.
“We got along great,” he recalls. “We did everything on a handshake. Everybody liked Bill.”
Under their agreement, Gross owned the real estate while Johnson retained control of the service and sales business. “At one time Bill was the biggest WellCraft [boat] dealer in the country, and a Mercury outboard dealer,” he notes.
Seven years ago, Johnson decided to retire and needed a signed lease in order to sell his end of the business. However, things did not work out under the new, out-of-state owner. Gross stepped in to take back control.
So far, he’s holding steady in a tumultuous economy where many people are selling – or losing – financially-draining luxury hobby items.
“I’m full every year,” says Gross. “I’m the cheapest [yard] offering basic amenities. A lot of the neighbors tie up here,”
While the boat yard sees a 25 percent turnover each year – “People move on,” he says – vacancies fill quickly and some owners are longterm patrons. “I’ve had people here 19 years.”
This season, Northwick will have between 10 and 15 employees. “It’s a specialized business,” says Gross. “We’ll hire locally.”
Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.