Costco a hot topic in GOP primary

Barbs exchanged between republican candidates hide a more complex story of big business in Cranston

Posted 2/7/24

What in other circumstances might be a rather dry question was a hot topic last week in Cranston and among interested parties all over Rhode Island following the first days of the Cranston Republican …

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Costco a hot topic in GOP primary

Barbs exchanged between republican candidates hide a more complex story of big business in Cranston


What in other circumstances might be a rather dry question was a hot topic last week in Cranston and among interested parties all over Rhode Island following the first days of the Cranston Republican primary campaign: Is or isn’t a Costco coming to Cranston?

Inflammatory remarks made by primary candidate and state representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung and her husband former mayor Allan Fung during her announcement party ignited rumors that plans for a Costco in the city which have been underway for months have gone awry.

During Fung’s speech introducing his wife, he spoke of the perceived economic shortcomings of current mayor and Fenton-Fung’s competitor Kenneth Hopkins’ tenure.

Fung said “While he's trying to tout economic development, Costco withdrew their application. Come on, folks. You know, this isn't following in what we did in restoring economic development back here to Cranston.” 

Fenton-Fung herself later spoke briefly to members of the press regarding the wholesale store, saying “My understanding is around December it withdrew its application.”

The next day, Hopkins released a statement “fact-checking” the previous evenings’ remarks. One of his major sticking points being the Costco.

He wrote.

“There was never any Costco application before the Cranston Planning Commission. A planned rezoning application to the City Council was paused for apparent further development discussions in September.”

He continued, lambasting Fenton-Fung with accusations that she spoke without proper knowledge. He said “My opponent may well jeopardize a Costco or other national company from coming to Cranston.”

Hopkins seemed to imply that negotiations for Cranston’s Costco were ongoing. He said “I am supporting the owner’s plans to redevelop the former state prison site. I am sure the City Council and other Cranston officials will support those efforts as the right thing to do for our community.”

The prospect of a Costco has been tantalizing Cranstonians since 2016, with tentative plans now in their third iteration. This most recent specter has been in process since the summer of 2023, with Costco negotiating with A Richard P. Baccari of Churchill and Barnes realty group. In the event of a successful negotiation, the store would be built on land which currently holds a vacant, former medium-security prison on Goddard Drive.

City Planning Director Jason Pezzullo’s recollection of events varies from both accounts. He was involved in each of the Costco negotiations which have occurred in the past eight years, as well as Baccari’s plans for the former prison before Costco threw its hat in the ring.

Before Costco, there had been a finalized plan for a trucking depot to be constructed on the Goddard Street property. However, the plan for a Costco “superseded” it. In their dealings with the city, Pezzullo referred to both Costco and Baccari together as “the applicant.”

“[The applicants] needed to get an amendment to the [comprehensive] plan,” Pezzullo told the Herald in an interview. “Because it was institutional, that needed to be changed to commercial and also a special zone that would accommodate the Costco warehouse and gas. It's M2 zoning. That's heavy industrial, which doesn't allow for retail. We worked with them for the special zoning and the Comp Plan Amendment and the Master Plan application. So all three of those would have been done in tandem at the same Pezzullo says big box stores such as Costco often lease the land on which their stores are built, rather than buying it outright. He was not aware of the nature of Costco’s intended agreement with Baccari regarding ownership.

Pezzullo characterized all the dealings between the city and applicants as very standard. Things were progressing as normal.

“The ordinances were about to be docketed, I think they were docketed for new business. The master plan was in my possession. We had just received it and also a site visit had been scheduled with the council and the planning commission. And no sooner did that happen, than the application was just fully retracted by the applicant. No reasons given, just retracted. So everything was given back to the applicant, you know, fees and applications and plans. That's it. That was in September.”

While he characterized that action as somewhat unusual, he said it was the applicants’ prerogative. “Those kinds of things that happen on the private side, frankly, it's not my business. I don't know, and I don't need to know.”

Pezzullo said he had no reason to believe that it was any action of the city, or the mayor, that caused the applicants to step back. “At that point, I would say no, because we actually worked with the applicant,” he said. “They had worked with us, we had the package. We had actually worked very closely with the applicant on drafting that ordinance, so when it was decided to retract it, it was kind of a surprise to us. You know, businesses make business decisions, but it was kind of a surprise because we had been going kind of full steam ahead to get this forward.

Pezzullo made it clear that all of this was still early days for such a deal. “We had gotten through the first draft of that ordinance and comp plan amendments, as far as staff had looked at it. But then again, we were going to have the site visit and then the plan commission was going to have hearings and then the City Council will have hearings. So that's just one step in the process. We had only gotten into the early steps of the process.”

“We didn’t offer them any official denials,” Pezzullo said. “It was nothing like that. It hadn’t even started.”

He made it clear that while those particular plans had been retracted, there was nothing stopping the applicants from returning to the city to continue work at any time. “They withdrew without prejudice, meaning that there's nothing that would stop them from starting back up again and walking into the door and everything's fine again.”

Chief of Staff for the Mayor Anthony Moretti paints a rosier picture of the (potentially) ongoing negotiations between Churchill and Barns and Costco.

“What we've heard is that they are doing their best to negotiate a deal with Costco,” Moretti said. “And one of the things that we were recently told last week is that [Churchill and Barnes] is in the process of developing a proposal to seek a zoning modification for that parcel of land to accommodate a business site such as a Costco.”

Speaking to the Herald on February 2, Fenton-Fung said that her source for this information was the Cranston Herald. She referenced December 2023 Herald article “Opening GOP crossfire in ’24 race for mayor” in which Hopkins answered questions about a number of subjects, one of which was the Costco.

It reads “... And the prospect for a Costco, which [Hopkins] said is in a holding pattern right now. He added “I know Costco still wants Cranston.’”

Fenton-Fung further said she asked a member of the city planning board to have it confirmed that an application was retracted, though she said she had been mistaken in thinking the application went in front of the city planning board, when it would have actually gone before the city zoning board.

“And it might come back again. That’s a great location for it. It wouldn’t be anywhere near the residents, it’s not going to be really compounding neighborhood traffic like in other places they’ve proposed it.”

John Mancini, an attorney who represents Costco in negotiations with Baccari said when reached by the Herald that “Costco doesn’t comment on pending negotiations for site locations.”

The Herald reached out to Richard P. Baccari through the real estate corporation Churchill & Banks, of which he is chairman, but he was unavailable for comment.

Costco, primary, mayor


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