The Herald News, Thursday, October 12, 2017 – Page A1
By Kevin P. O’Connor
Fall River — With five years of work and $100 million invested, Steven Cohen had a few butterflies in his stomach Saturday.
Market Basket was opening, the first store in the new SouthCoast Marketplace. The plaza was developed by Cohen’s company, CEA Group of Cambridge. He and his partners were about to find out if their bet was good, if the city would support a new shopping venue. “It was everything we hoped for,” Cohen said. “Thousands of people crowded the Market Basket. Every parking spot was filled.
“It felt like a big party. Everyone was smiling.” So far, so good, Cohen
said. Cohen was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the Bristol County Business Expo sponsored by the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He spoke about the challenges of buying the New Harbour Mall and redeveloping it as the SouthCoast Marketplace.
“Five years ago, I got a call from an attorney,” Cohen said. “He said he was representing the owners of a mall in Fall River.”
The mall had a Walmart, a Kmart and a movie theater and it was for sale. That was the good news.
The bad news was that Walmart was leaving, Kmart was shaky and the movie theater had been closed for 10 years.
And no one wanted to risk their money in Fall River, Cohen said. Every other developer passed on the project.
Cohen knew the city from time spent in Westport. He saw a city of 100,000 with two highways, good roads, Amazon on the way and probably commuter rail.
“It was amazing there was such limited shopping options in Fall River,” he said. “And there are not many cities of 100,000 in the U.S. that doesn’t have its own movie theater.”
So the CEA Group got involved, first with then-Mayor Will Flanagan, second with then-Mayor Sam Sutter, third with current Mayor Jasiel Correia II.
But, through it all, the company’s primary point of contact was Ken Fiola at the Bristol County EDC and Robert Mellion of the Bristol County Chamber, Cohen said.
“The Office of Economic Development was absolutely critical,” Cohen said. “When an outsider like me comes into a city, you don’t know what the rules of the games are.
“Dealing with the office and Ken just made it possible. He told us what we could do, what was possible here. “Every city needs to have an independent office that does that, to make it attractive and feasible for outside investors to do business in your city.
“Personalities aside, everything else aside, it is important to developers that the office be independent of the administration. You need to know that your plans don’t depend on election results.”
He was surprised, Cohen said, because getting help from an established city agency ran contrary to the city’s reputation.
“There is something of a negative rap against doing business in Fall River,” he said. “It is not deserved, but it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He said he hopes his plaza will show people that is wrong.
“There was a palpable sense, Saturday, that this was the beginning of a rejuvenation in the South End,” he said. “We hope it will help lift the spirit and the optimism of Fall River.”