NORTH KINGSTOWN—When the former Ryan’s 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.
Thursday’s announcement that Wickford Marketplace was closing its doors, however, was met with a much different reaction—one of shock and confusion—and, in the week since that announcement, more questions than answers remain.
Paul Conforti, the managing partner for Ocean State Job Lot’s 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 Marketplace’s attempt to provide patrons with outdoor seating that the council ultimately shot down.
For Conforti, the decision to shut down Wickford Marketplace wasn’t easy but it was inevitable given what he felt was the town’s negative attitude towards the business.
“Well, it seems like since we opened the store, we’ve run into challenges with the town,” he said.
“At 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 ‘coffee’ and ‘prepared foods’ and ‘deli’ and we were told we had to take that down or turn it around because we didn’t have the proper permit and so we’ve run into multiple issues.”
Conforti said the issue that made the decision final was the patio seating.
“We were told by the town that the rules indicate we can’t put tables and chairs on our patio because we don’t have a bathroom on the first floor,” he explained. “We 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 weren’t going to get support for that, we decided it was in our best interest to close.”
Conforti appealed the decision to the state, asking for an exception given the Marketplace’s restrictions related to its septic system but was denied, he said, thanks in large part to an “impassioned” plea from council member Charlie Stamm at the meeting.
Stamm, who said he was only at the meeting to observe and doesn’t 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.
“The thought in some way, manner or fashion that the Wickford Marketplace owners are being discriminated against or persecuted against is simply untrue,” he said. “It’s 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.”
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.
“The seating was not contemplated or disclosed in the plans they filed and had approved,” he said. “The 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 didn’t 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 don’t have neon signs in their windows.”
Regardless of the decision to shut down Wickford Marketplace—the only aspect of the business that is still operational is the Inside Scoop ice cream stand located inside—both Conforti and Stamm agree it’s a shame to see a local business have to shut down in this economy, especially a business in such an “iconic” building.
“Well, I think the closing of any business in the village is sad,” Stamm said. “We’re 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, we’re disappointed.”
As for the future of the building, Conforti says, that’s still up in the air.
“We own the building and we’re not sure what’s going to happen yet,” he explained. “We feel as though it’s an important building, a landmark building. Certainly the news coverage that the closing generated would indicate that it’s a building that people pay attention to so, for now, we’re just going to wait and see.
We don’t have any immediate plans other than we’re going to continue to support John Bucci and the Inside Scoop who are in there who, we think, will have a busy summer there. We’re open to inquiries if anyone is interested in talking to us about possibilities with the building.”