Does Seaside have a new patron?

It is beginning to look like mutual fund mogul Charles Royce, whose $140 million Ocean House in Watch Hill is Westerly's largest taxpayer, may be riding in to save Seaside in Waterford.

A suggestion that Royce may be involved in developing the abandoned sanitarium arose last week during a zoning hearing on a proposal to allow an inn on the historic, state-owned property.

Mark Steiner, the financially challenged developer who has an agreement to buy the property, disclosed at the hearing that the Ocean House is advising on plans for an inn at Seaside.

Daniel Hostettler, president of Ocean House Management LLC, which also runs the $30 million Weekapaug Inn in Westerly, another historic property in which Royce has an investment, appeared at the Waterford zoning hearing to talk about how an inn at Seaside would be run.

Hostettler specifically said the Ocean House management company would not be financing Seaside.

But who is? Royce?

Steiner, who has been stalling on the development of Seaside, clearly does not have the financial means to pull off a major development himself, given that he has been put on a court-ordered payment plan to pay off his American Express card balance. He even lost the lawyer who was helping him block a bank foreclosure of his house because he stopped paying him.

It's hard to think that a hotel management company established by Royce to run his luxury inns in Westerly would get involved with a financially unstable developer at Seaside, unless Royce has a planned stake.

Royce is traditionally coy about his investments here in southern New England, including a number of buildings he bought secretly in downtown Westerly.

But if he is indeed the rabbit in Steiner's hat, they need to tell the public.

Cranky neighbors have been dominating the debate over changing the zoning for the property to allow an inn, complaining about traffic and noise.

Even state Rep. Betsy Ritter of Waterford, who shares a lot of blame for the state's allowing the historic Cass Gilbert buildings on the property to sit empty and deteriorate all these years, was wringing her hands at the zone change hearing, worrying out loud about commercializing the neighborhood.

But Royce's involvement could be a game-changer, enough to drown out the neighbors' objections, even if they are fanned by Ritter, who has eyes only for winning a state Senate seat this fall.

The Ocean House project, replicating the old Watch Hill hotel with a modern, luxury resort, has won wide praise, all the way from preservationists impressed with the careful replication to travel writers who have put Royce's jewel on many of their "best of" lists.

The project has not only kept the property open to the public - anyone can order a beer and enjoy it on the grand oceanfront porch - but it pays a lot of bills in town, more than $600,000 a year in taxes.

I don't think the Seaside neighbors need to worry if a Royce inn were to be developed in their midst. It would almost certainly help property values.

After all, long after the new Ocean House was up and running, Taylor Swift plopped down $17 million in cash for a house three doors down, a record sales price.

Preservationists might be reassured, too, knowing that someone with an interest in historic architecture, and the means to protect it, is involved.

I wouldn't blame town residents or zoning commissioners for being leery about zone changes for Steiner, given his sketchy track record. He has been asking for zone changes, and done nothing to improve the property, since 2003.

But the commission should be swayed by Royce's track record in a similar venture when they, as they should, take into consideration all of the interests of the town, not just the neighborhood, in weighing a Seaside zone change.

If Seaside is going to be a Royce project, let's hear about it soon, for everyone's sake.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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