WESTERLY — Tenants at the former Bradford Dyeing Association property are moving out after state fire officials this month ordered the owner to vacate all the buildings.
As the tenants move to new quarters, the owner, Nick Griseto, is preparing to turn it over to the town, ending his efforts to revitalize the historic mill site on the Pawcatuck River and acknowledging his inability to meet property tax obligations.
On Saturday, a few of the tenants were on the premises at 460 Bradford Road, removing their property after checking in with Griseto and his wife, Terry. On June 4 the Office of the State Fire Marshal issued an abatement order requiring the property to be vacated.
A spokesman for the fire marshal’s office said tenants were allowed on the property to remove their belongings during business hours, and as a safety precaution must check in with Griseto. The only other workers allowed inside were those working on fire alarm or sprinkler systems, said Matt Sheaff, the spokesman.
The order follows years of turmoil at the property and was prompted by a May 15 accident in which a worker standing in the basket of a forklift fell about 15 feet when the basket separated from the forklift and landed on the concrete floor. The man, who had been changing light fixtures, suffered foot and leg injuries.
A Dunn’s Corners Fire Department firefighter who responded to the accident documented his observations of the mill property in a letter to the department’s chief, Christopher P. DeGrave. The firefighter reported that emergency lights and exit signs were in disrepair, fire extinguishers were missing, and exit doorways removed or blocked. The firefighter also found a noncompliant spray paint booth, electrical work that had been performed without a permit, and problems with the sprinkler system.
On May 16, a meeting was held that included Dunn’s Corners fire officials, representatives of the fire marshal’s office, the Grisetos and their attorney, and the Westerly building official. The state officials requested that Griseto have his fire alarms and sprinkler systems tested immediately. According to a letter to DeGrave from the department’s fire marshal, James Bobola, Griseto also agreed to a compliance schedule.
On Saturday Griseto said he was resigned to giving up his dream of making the property a viable business endeavor. “We’re going to be out on July 6 and I’ll hand the keys to the town,” he said.
Griseto opened Bradford Printing and Finishing on the property in 2009 after the Bradford Dyeing Association, for which he had worked as executive vice president of sales and marketing, closed earlier that year.
In its latter years, BDA was a leading supplier of textiles to the military under a buy-American law. Its history dates to 1910, when an English association bought the water rights and mill site, and built a sawtoothed-roof plant. Other buildings were added to the site, but the property was ravaged by the flood of 2010. In 2013 a court-appointed receiver sold much of the equipment.
Griseto, who also endured two fires at the property, then tried to make a go of it by marketing the property as the Bradford Industrial Park, but a hoped-for federal grant of $1 million never materialized. Griseto had planned to use the grant to renovate parts of the complex.
At every step, Griseto said he encountered another challenge, including a state mandate to address water pollution problems. He struggled to pay property taxes, prompting the town to file a collector’s deed about one year ago. The town is now listed in land records as co-owner of the property. Before the town filed the deed, it entered into a payment plan with Griseto, but he could not meet its terms.
“It’s a blessing in disguise. It’s time … it’s a great piece of property. It could be a beautiful industrial park but I don’t have the resources the town does,” Griseto said.
He acknowledged receiving help over the years from town and state officials. “But I’m not the easiest one to get along with. I admit that. When I get my back against the wall I say, ‘I’m going to make this work,’” he said.
The order to vacate follows a blunt assessment of the property by DeGrave.
“I worry that with continued neglect, lack of maintenance and limited inspections combined with continued use and expanded property leasing, the site is well on its way for a local disaster,” DeGrave said in a letter to state Fire Marshal Timothy McLaughlin.
Last month, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court judge’s ruling that the Dunn’s Corners Fire Department was not required to respond to emergency calls from the property because it was not included in a fire district. Griseto on Saturday said the plant was not in a district because it housed the Bradford Fire Department decades ago. In return for housing the department, the company was exempted from paying fire taxes and the district boundaries were drawn around the property.
The Dunn’s Corners Fire Department sought a judge’s ruling on the question after responding to numerous false alarms. The department billed Griseto $20,000 for the calls but was never paid.
Interim Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said he would not be available to discuss the town’s plans for the property until Tuesday.
Griseto said he believes the town has been awarded a grant to perform an environmental assessment of the property.
As of last month the property was also listed by the state as being subject to the federal Superfund law — the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act. The act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain information on sites that are known to be contaminated or thought to be potentially contaminated.