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Stuart's seen as success story of stimulus projects

By:  Beth Hurd
Johnston Sun Rise

After being vacant for 18 years, Stuart's Plaza is ready to rebuild. And as the town readies for construction this spring, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse see the site as an example of how funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) are being put to good use.

"This project is improving our roads and infrastructure, creating jobs and generating economic activity," said Reed. "It is a good example of how wisely investing Recovery Act dollars can leverage a larger amount of private investment and make a positive difference in our community."

Reed was at Stuart's Plaza Tuesday, along with Whitehouse, developers and state and town representatives. Also on hand were members of the newly formed Tax Increment Finance Board, created especially for the project, as well as members of the town's Planning and Zoning Boards.

The investment of $3.5 million in Recovery Act dollars to upgrade roadways and install fiber optics and new traffic lights will help improve road safety, ease traffic flow and allow the town to add new sidewalks and curbing. There will be 35 construction jobs created by the project.

"The subsequent development of the vacant lot into a hotel and shopping center will generate an additional 260 construction jobs and create future work in the hotel and shopping center when the project is completed," Reed added.

The entire project should be completed by late fall 2010.

Whitehouse applauded the efforts of town officials to move the project forward and agreed that it marks a positive step in a state with an unemployment rate approaching 13 percent.

"We saw today in Johnston that investment in our crumbling infrastructure creates jobs and improves the quality of life in our communities," said Whitehouse. "In addition to upgrading the condition of Hartford Avenue, this project has used federal money to encourage private development, which will support new jobs for years to come."

In discussions with the developer, Mayor Joseph Polisena and members of the Town Council have been assured that qualified Johnston residents will be given preference for the majority of jobs created by the redevelopment.

Polisena called developer Jeff Saletin, president of Saletin Realty Group, "a hero" for investing $40 million in the project.

"He has a real vision for our community," the mayor said.

Calling the plaza a "white elephant blighted site," Saletin said without the support of the mayor, the Town Council and local leadership, the project might not have happened.

"This gave us the goal line - it gave our prospective tenants a sense of reality," said Saletin of the project that will create 401 temporary jobs during construction and an additional 457 permanent jobs following its completion.

"This will put money in people's pockets," he said.

Saletin did not release the names of the prospective tenants.

Director of the Department of Transportation Michael P. Lewis was pleased that the project would yield improvements to area roadways.

"This has been a great opportunity - three investments in one, improving infrastructure, putting local contractors to work and enhancing private land development," he said.

One of those local contractors - Rico DiGregorio - echoed those sentiments. The ARRA funds have been a boon to his business, with three "stimulus jobs" in progress by his firm, DiGregorio, Inc.

Though construction will not start until the spring, Mayor Polisena has requested he gets the first crack at breaking ground. Attracting business to Stuart's has been a priority of his since taking office.

"This is the pulse of the town, and it's been empty for 18 years," he said. "It will bring people to the area. We are ecstatic."