Yesterday, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian announced plans to have legislation presented at the next City Council meeting, seeking approval for the city to enter into a 15-year lease agreement with New England Lighthouse Tourism and Restoration Company to restore Conimicut Lighthouse and open it to the public for tours and possible overnight stays.
The proposed agreement is that Nick Korstad of New England Lighthouse would be responsible for the cost and work of restoring the lighthouse to historical accuracy, and maintain and operate the lighthouse for tours and eventually overnight stays. The city would maintain ownership and be able to use the facility for events but not be responsible for any associated costs.
Korstad would make back the money he put into restoration through the tours and overnight stays.
“This will be a great public-private partnership,” said Avedisian.
Korstad went through a similar process when he purchased and restored Borden Flats Lighthouse in Fall River, Mass., which he opened for tours and overnight stays for couples. As a result, he knows the regulations he needs to follow during the restoration of lighthouses, and has a working relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard, National Parks Service and General Services Administration.
Lighthouses have been a personal passion of Korstad’s since he was a kid, growing up on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. He even has dreams of being a lighthouse keeper, which came true in a way when he purchased the Fall River lighthouse for $56,000.
“It’s kind of a niche,” said Korstad. “They’re making a comeback as a tourist attraction.
It took Korstad three years to renovate Borden Flats, and he predicts bringing Conimicut Lighthouse back to its original shape will take about the same, just because every detail has to be approved by the powers that be.
“Everything has to be approved so it remains historically accurate,” said Korstad, down to the doors, windows and paint. He will have to follow regulations from the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and the Department of the Interior and National Parks Service will need to approve final plans.
This process all began last fall in typical Rhode Island fashion. Korstad was looking into other lighthouses he could restore; he found the Conimicut Lighthouse but didn’t know who to contact. Luckily, Korstad works with Dave Tobin through New England Lighthouse, who knew former Republican congressional candidate John Loughlin who knew Avedisian.
“It’s a Rhode Island story. Someone heard about something and passed it along,” said Avedisian.
And the partnership has grown from there. Last November, Avedisian, Korstad, and a small group visited the lighthouse so Korstad could evaluate the work to be done.
“The inside was in really good condition. I was pleasantly surprised,” Korstad said yesterday. “This one will be easier.”
Through the partnership, New England Lighthouse would offer seasonal lighthouse tours in the spring, summer and fall, on their own and potentially through a partnership with Save The Bay. Overnight stays would be possible pending approval of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act and notification to the Rhode Island State Preservation Office.
All proceeds from the lighthouse would be put back into the facility for maintenance, restoration and small employee stipends. The city will not have to cover any of the costs.
“We will assist with technical advice and finding grants to apply for,” said Avedisian.
The city would be able to coordinate tours for students during the week and have access to the lighthouse for events, tours, public open houses and more at no cost. The city would maintain ownership.
If the lighthouse does get approval for overnight stays, Korstad predicts Cominicut Lighthouse, which is larger than Border Flats, will be able to house about three couples at a time.
His exact plans for renovation have not been completed, but Korstad predicts the project will be different from the three other lighthouses he has worked on in the past.
“It will have it’s own unique challenges. I will say no lighthouse has been the same even though they look the same,” he said.
One unique challenge to Conimicut Lighthouse is its location; it is situated on a shoal, only accessible by boat, and has no land property.
“It’s very weather-dependent, tide-dependent,” said Korstad about the ability to complete work on the structure.
Built in the late 1800s, the Conimicut Lighthouse was acquired by the city through an application to the Department of the Interior in January 2004. Over the past decade, the Coast Guard has maintained the facility as a working lighthouse to keep boaters off the shoal. They have been responsible for keeping the solar panels to power the light, however there has been little other work.
The plan was always to restore the lighthouse to maintain historical significance, open the lighthouse to the public as an educational resource, and incorporate the lighthouse into the continued development of Conimicut Village. But federal funding fell through and then there were questions of if the lighthouse was restored, who would maintain and run the property.
This partnership alleviates all of those concerns.
“This is a perfect fit for us because he [Korstad] is going to do all of that,” said Avedisian.
Should the lease be approved, there are even more opportunities for growth. For example, Avedisian sees the potential for a partnership with Borden Flats. It could be a getaway package with residents spending one night at the Fall River lighthouse and a second in Warwick.
“There’s all sorts of possibilities,” said Avedisian. “We want to maximize its tourism potential.”
Upon approval, Korstad is prepared to begin the restoration right away. The first phase of renovation includes exterior painting, cleaning and stripping the interior of flaking paint, window and pipe repair and interior painting, pending approval of paint colors.
Restoring the lighthouse and opening it to the public is expected to boost tourism to Warwick; preservation projects such as this often attract national and international attention.
“There’s a built-in constituency [of lighthouse enthusiasts] that we can take advantage of,” said Avedisian.
Korstad says lighthouses attract people because of the historical period they represent.
“It preserves an era that no longer exists,” he said.
Korstad also feels that the restoration of lighthouses sends a message to lighthouse keepers of the past that their job was important and it is remembered.