Gorbea pushing to move historic state documents out of flood plain

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of Rhode Island’s most historic documents sit in a rented building, and one of its features fills R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea with anxiety.

“The fact that we are in a geographic flood zone during hurricane season really worries me,” Gorbea said before opening the lid on a box containing Rhode Island’s copy of the Declaration of Independence.

The building at 337 Westminster St. in Providence is prone to flooding. It has a series of sump pumps working around the clock, engaged in a constant battle against rising water.

And some days, the odor emanating from the basement to the first floor can be pungent.

In 2015, Target 12 revealed taxpayers paid $248,000 a year in rent to former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino to house the state archives. At the time, thousands of documents were stored in the basement, which is wired with alarms that are supposed to sound if water starts to rise. 

The documents have since been moved: some to the first floor, others to an off-site location, but the state is still renting space from Paolino. 

Gorbea said Rhode Island still holds the distinction of being the only state in the country without a permanent archive. Her original plan was to change that within four years, but it’s now clear the project will take longer.

“Everything always goes slower than I’d like to, but I think we need to do our due diligence,” Gorbea said. “I think it’s reasonable for a project this size — something that will cost taxpayer money — that we do our due diligence and that we do things the right way.”

Gorbea’s office contracted architecture firm DBVW Architects to come up with a rendering for a 52,000-square-foot facility that would include exhibition space, multi-use public meeting space, a preservation lab and “state-of-the-art secure storage space” for cities’ and towns’ historic documents. 

Courtesy: DBVW Architects

The proposal has the building placed across the street from the State House, in front of the R.I. Department of Administration building on Smith Street.

Gorbea said the “back-of-the-napkin” estimate on the building’s cost is $52 million.

“These buildings are not cheap,” Gorbea said. “They have very complicated mechanical electrical [systems] that help to preserve that environment for the long, safe keeping of these documents.”

The Raimondo administration recommended that Gorbea explore using the building that currently houses the state’s Department of Transportation, which is directly across the street from the State House, next to the parcel Gorbea has proposed.

Gorbea said her office is going to have engineers look at the RIDOT building, but said it’s possible it could cost more than building a new facility.

“I worry about the cost of retrofitting an existing building,” said Gorbea.

Her office asked for $5 million in the governor’s budget proposal to take the next step toward a new building, for engineering and architecture costs, but the governor declined. So Gorbea has gone before both the House and Senate Finance Committees to urge lawmakers to put the money in the budget.

Amanda Clarke, a spokesperson for the Raimondo administration said they are “committed to identifying a permanent home for the archives.” 

“The Governor’s Capital Budget recommends $100,000 in FY2022 to commence site development for a permanent facility to house the State Archives,” Clarke said in an email. “While the Secretary of State’s $5 million proposal was not included in our budget this year, we look forward to continued conversations with her office as we consider the options going forward.”

Asked if that timeline was acceptable, Nick Domings, a spokesperson for Gorbea, said they are “pleased that the governor’s office has this on their radar.” 

“Finding a permanent home for our state’s historic treasures is an urgent situation and the Secretary is looking forward to working with them on a timely solution,” Domings said in an email.

For Gorbea, the location is key. Putting it near the State House will ensure children on field trips will be able to take advantage of seeing archival exhibits and learn more about the state they live in.

“The most expensive part of the field trip is the school bus,” she said. “If you have to put them on the bus to go somewhere else, you add to the cost of that field trip and they might not go.”

Gorbea said she would be open to possibly putting a bond referendum before voters in 2020 to pay for the project.

“This is a way of ensuring people will use this facility and will learn about the important role RI played in the making of this country,” she said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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