WOONSOCKET, R.I. – With the massive blaze that destroyed a 122-year-old mill in Woonsocket under control, city officials and business leaders Wednesday began to weigh the historic and economic loss to the city.
The old Alice Mill Rubber Manufacturing Plant, a fixture in the city since the late 1800s, is owned by Woonsocket's American Wood Pellet Co., which was planning to use part of the space to manufacture wood pellets and lease the rest to other companies moving into the area.
Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said the mill's loss would delay the redevelopment, a project that was expected to bring new jobs to a city with an unemployment rate of about 16 percent.
But the conflagration may have a silver lining because there were some limitations to what could be done with the property, Fontaine said.
"It may actually work out better. This may be an opportunity to build from scratch," he said.
Moreover, the real economic loss took place when the last tenant, Portola Tech, moved out a few years ago, taking several hundred jobs with it, Fontaine said.
The mammoth fire that broke out on Tuesday night gutted the building — most of the roof collapsed — and firefighters were letting the structure burn to the ground. Investigators had not gained entry because of remaining "hot spots."
But state Fire Marshal Jack Chartier said he believes residual heat from a blow torch used by a construction worker sparked the blaze. That conclusion came from interviews with firefighters and workers who had been working at the mill Tuesday. The building did not have a permit for blow-torch work, which would have required a fire watch, Chartier said.
Don Gordon, a co-owner of American Wood Pellet Co. and the building, said the company was not required to have a permit to do the work.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries in the blaze.
Matt Wojcik, director of economic development for Woonsocket, called the mill a "major historical asset" to the city and said the neighborhood would be radically changed without it. But he expressed optimism that the 7.5-acre parcel could be redeveloped.
"We have almost no vacant land whatsoever for commercial development. Getting seven-and-a-half acres is a pretty significant change of events," he said.
Alice Mill was built in 1889 by Woonsocket Rubber Company, in its day the leading importer of raw rubber into the U.S., according to histories about Woonsocket. At the height of its operation, the factory was the largest rubber goods factory in the world, employing 2,000 people.
The mill, which was named for the mother of Woonsocket Rubber Company's owner, later manufactured the popular U.S. Keds sneakers. Alice Mill was shuttered in 1932, but reopened in 1941 to manufacture barrage balloons, rubber assault vehicles and other rubber products needed during World War II.
Steven Triedman, another co-owner of American Wood Pellet Co., bought the mill last year to manufacture wood pellets, a renewable energy source produced from waste wood that's considered an inexpensive alternative to heating oil.
"It was a hell of a shock. I pulled up, and the mill was fully engulfed," Triedman said.
The company, which has two office buildings on the property that did not burn down, was planning to hire 10-15 employees to work at the pellet factory, which Triedman had hoped to open later this year. In addition, he had leased excess space in the mill to three companies with two more slated to sign leases this week. Of those, four were new to the area, he said. He was unsure how many people those firms would have employed.
"We can't replace what was here. We have to start to rebuild for our company, and if we can accommodate other tenants, we will try to," he said.
The company had insured the mill building for $5 million, he said.
In Woonsocket, everyone seems to know someone who worked at the mill — if they didn't work there themselves. Poppy Boisvert, 68, who can see the mill from his house up the street, was employed at Portola Tech for nearly 25 years, including as a machine operator. Having the mill gone will leave a hole in the neighborhood, he said.
"I know every foot of that building I don't think they're ever going to build anything like that again," he said.
Woonsocket is located north of Providence, two miles from the Massachusetts state line.
Associated Press writer Ian MacDougall in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.