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NORTH KINGSTOWN â€“ When youâ€™re fed up with freezing temperatures, icy roads and blackened snow piled high, itâ€™s nice to think about warm-weather activities as a distraction.
Some people pore over seed catalogs, planning their spring gardens. Barry Gross is enmeshed in plans to refurbish the old Johnsonâ€™s Boat Yard site that heâ€™s owned since 1992. Heâ€™s already started, dredging three years ago to increase the capacity to 60 slips plus 24 moorings in Mill Cove.
Now, under the new name Northwick Boat Yard, the Narragansett-based realtor and developer is upgrading the facilities again.
Scheduled for demolition is the enormous, derelict, corrugated-metal-covered main structure thatâ€™s become an eyesore over decades. â€śIâ€™m putting up a new service building,â€ť says Gross, who is also thinking long-term.
â€śIâ€™m remodeling all of the existing buildings; four total. Iâ€™ll get all this done and find new management. Figuring all the construction, weâ€™ll have some in place by summer.â€ť A year from now heâ€™ll further modernize with another new building, razing others that are time-worn.
Even though it will be a work in progress, Northwick, located on Esmond Avenue, off Fowler Street, will be up and running June 1.
It should be noted that Grossâ€™s father was the late South County real estate legend Barry Gross, who was not thrilled with his sonâ€™s first choice of employment.
â€śI was a commercial fisherman for 10 years. This was back when you could make a good living.â€ť What he accrued from his hard labor, he declares, gave him the financial heft to buy Johnsonâ€™s. (He also, probably inevitably, followed his father into real estate.) The boat yard was opened in the 1920s by Ralph Northup â€śBack then it was marshland,â€ť Gross explains. â€śHe would just skid the boats out and bring them back to work on them.â€ť From 1963 to 1992 it was owned by Bill Johnson, a popular Wickford figure; Gross acquired the place from him.
â€śWe got along great,â€ť he recalls. â€śWe did everything on a handshake. Everybody liked Bill.â€ť
Under their agreement, Gross owned the real estate while Johnson retained control of the service and sales business. â€śAt one time Bill was the biggest WellCraft [boat] dealer in the country, and a Mercury outboard dealer,â€ť he notes.
Seven years ago, Johnson decided to retire and needed a signed lease in order to sell his end of the business. However, things did not work out under the new, out-of-state owner. Gross stepped in to take back control.
So far, heâ€™s holding steady in a tumultuous economy where many people are selling â€“ or losing â€“ financially-draining luxury hobby items.
â€śIâ€™m full every year,â€ť says Gross. â€śIâ€™m the cheapest [yard] offering basic amenities. A lot of the neighbors tie up here,â€ť
While the boat yard sees a 25 percent turnover each year â€“ â€śPeople move on,â€ť he says â€“ vacancies fill quickly and some owners are longterm patrons. â€śIâ€™ve had people here 19 years.â€ť
This season, Northwick will have between 10 and 15 employees. â€śItâ€™s a specialized business,â€ť says Gross. â€śWeâ€™ll hire locally.â€ť
Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.View more articles in: