Tom Gentz Comments at ChurchWoods Groundbreaking Ceremony

Charlestown Town Council president Tom Gentz addressed about a hundred residents gathered for the ChurchWoods groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday, August 23, at the Church of the Holy Spirit. The following are his comments.

Tom Gentz

Welcome, everyone, to the ChurchWoods Groundbreaking Ceremony.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman, former pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit on whose grounds we now stand, gave birth to ChurchWoods in 2010, over six years ago. When he looked at the one-time laundromat on property adjacent to his church, he thought of the public good and decided the location was perfect for a project that would benefit those less fortunate. He decided he should share his thoughts with the Charlestown Town Council president.

Also a tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Washington County, Michael approached then director Mary Lou Gentz, my wife, about the best way to contact me. The rest, as they say, is history. Thank you, Michael, for getting the ball rolling.

I invited Geoff Marchant, then president of Washington County Community Development Corporation, to a meeting on a cold January day at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Michael could not have been more positive about the affordable housing project, and though freezing outside, it was warm inside.

Armed with years of experience in the ways of public funding and a can-do attitude, Geoff worked tirelessly to put together the business plans, applications, numbers and sketches for ChurchWoods. Michael Tessman named the project “ChurchWoods,” and for obvious reasons, the name stuck. Geoff began a six year quest to make today happen. Thank you, Geoff.

Geoff faced numerous funding issues. Following guidance from the public funders, Geoff tried combining ChurchWoods with another Charlestown affordable housing project, Shannock Village Cottages. Following revised guidance from the same funders, he broke the projects apart. Then, the funders announced that the project would qualify for tax credit funding, but then, they decided not to deliver that funding. After each redesign, Geoff appeared with updates before the Charlestown Town Council.

Anyone else would have given up, but not Geoff.

During the discussions, Charlestown Town Council vice president George Tremblay stepped forward to volunteer his considerable academic skills to create a needs analysis document for affordable housing in local communities. When measured against the criteria, ChurchWoods proved a worthy project. Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz, Planner Jane Weidman, the Planning Commission, the Affordable Housing Commission and Zoning Official Joe Warner – all collaborated with Geoff to bring ChurchWoods to fruition.

Throughout the trial and error approach to funding, the Episcopal Diocese supported The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman’s concern for the public good and the vision for ChurchWoods. Special thanks to The Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely who just delivered the invocation and to Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who chaired the Diocesan Board. The patience of Job was required to maintain faith in a great project desperate for funding. Mayor Avedisian worked with the board to keep the property off the market and convinced them to sacrifice ready cash and wait for ChurchWoods. Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to you both.

Almost miraculously, Geoff Marchant found the silver lining in the dark cloud named Superstorm Sandy. He studied options in Superstorm Sandy Disaster Recovery money for affordable housing and then realized rising FEMA flood insurance rates would drive some Charlestown seniors out of their homes. He researched and found 25 seniors who could lose their homes and wrote a $4.4 Million Sandy DR grant for affordable housing. That grant also provided equal Sandy funds for remediation. Geoff coupled the Sandy DR money with Building Homes Rhode Island funds of $1.9 Million.

Finally, Geoff had a win-win. The seniors in need could find a home in ChurchWoods, and the state received $3.5 Million in Sandy funds. Support in Washington from Senators Reed and Whitehouse and from Representative Langevin tipped the scales in favor of ChurchWoods. Rhode Island is blessed with a wonderful congressional team – thank you all.

Kevin Flynn, then Director of Rhode Island Statewide Planning, worked with Geoff to obtain funding at the state level. Geoff’s hard work and Kevin’s recognition of this worthy project saved ChurchWoods from the scrap heap. Charlestown’s $1Million affordable housing bond, passed in 2006, provided the balance of needed funding in the amount of $375,000. Charlestown, I proudly add, is the only one of the state’s 39 cities and towns to have an affordable housing bond.

In summary, Geoff found the solution to the perfect storm. The Town of Charlestown used its funding for the property acquisition from the most patient Rhode Island Episcopal Diocese. Geoff wrote the Sandy grant to leverage funding for Rhode Island, and our congressional delegation put their shoulders to the grindstone to make ChurchWoods happen.

Everyone seated here today and many in the audience worked to make ChurchWoods a reality. Thank you all.