Set on Point Judith in the town of Narragansett, the picturesque community of Galilee is currently engaged in a battle over the future of its sizable harbor, a fight which could have far-reaching consequences. The small village of just 3,400 is one of the most important economic centers in the state — it is the largest port in Rhode Island and responsible for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of trade every year, mostly in seafood. Just beyond the port is a five-acre plot of land that used to be an inn, now opened up for a large development opportunity right in the heart of the community. The land, owned by the state’s Department of Environmental Management, once seemed destined for the same fate that countless parcels in small towns across America have faced. The state leased the land to PRI X, a joint venture between Paolino Properties and Procaccianti Companies, which announced ambitious plans last fall to largely convert it into a parking lot. In the face of this disappointing vision, the town stepped up by not just rejecting this plan but also presenting their vision which is dynamic and sets a standard in America for the planning of dense mixed-use development. The Galilee community must receive state support to ensure that its vision is not crushed by outside interests — demonstrating to small towns nationwide that they have the power to reject soulless corporate development.
This story begins in 2005, when PRI X first received the lease to the properties making up the lot. Since then, they have done little to maintain the property, letting it fall into disrepair and “creating a dangerous blighted condition,” Narragansett Town Councilwoman Ewa Dzwierzynski previously told GoLocal Prov. Over the last two years, RIDEM requested proposals for the development of the full property — before rejecting all of them and deciding to permanently break the property up into three lots, two of which would be used for parking operated by PRI X, who proposed significant amounts of parking in their plans for the lot. While PRI X owns the inn building, it leases the land for parking from the state. But last summer, the state paused all plans to do a hazardous materials assessment. And just last week, the town of Narragansett ordered PRI X to demolish the old building.
Lost in this shuffle was a more ambitious plan from the town to repurpose the site into a complete town center. Substantial parking would remain, but there would also be a small hotel, a large mixed-use development and landscaped green space allowing for town gatherings and drawing more people to the port. Should this project succeed, the town would follow up with plans to expand into the surrounding lots, building new housing as well as new commercial space, all surrounded by green space, to make the area a truly vibrant community center. This plan reflects the vision of the community and was drafted to meet their needs. It has significant support, and the only thing holding them back is RIDEM’s decision to maintain a large surface parking lot.
Galilee has done an incredible amount of grassroots work already and can win this fight with sustained effort. It is now time for state lawmakers to step in — and, when the environmental review process ends, direct RIDEM to recognize the desires of the town, not the vested interests of PRI X to turn the area into parking. The importance of the story of Galilee to small towns the nation over should not be understated. It is hard for a small town to stand up to wealthy developers — it is even harder for those towns to develop their own responses. Galilee can become one of the most important case studies for how small towns can take their futures into their own hands. Galilee shows how small towns can use the resources within their communities to direct local development and draw on the public in holistically planning for the future of their town — now it just needs the state’s support to make their plans a reality.
Other small towns, in desperate need of revitalization, should take from Galilee’s playbook and reclaim their agency in directing their future. There are many ways this can be done, and Galilee has aptly demonstrated the power that community-oriented planning can have. We should all hope that more communities take note.
The story of small-town America getting paved over by big developers is not new. What is new, however, is the incredible response the community of Galilee has mounted. The petition in support of community-driven plans for the land has over 4,000 signatures, and their vision for the future is bold. If they succeed, they would demonstrate that communities can decide their own fate when they assert themselves. It will put developers on notice and let them know they cannot count on the disorganization of small towns to offer no resistance to their desires. Hopefully, the story of Galilee can inspire other small towns across the nation to demonstrate not just a commitment to oppose bad development, but a commitment to make something new on their own terms.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.