New Bedford's Rodman Candleworks changes hands for $1.7 million

NEW BEDFORD — A Duxbury investor/developer is jumping into the local real estate market with both feet, picking up the landmark Rodman Candleworks building for $1.7 million, the buyer confirmed to The Standard-Times.
But Andrew Rockett of Rockett Real Estate Investment is playing his cards close to his chest about his intentions, other than saying he plans to make repairs and upgrades to the famous structure.
In recent months, Rockett also has purchased the former Satkin Mills on Washburn Street for $1.2 million and the foreclosed building at 250 Union St. that houses the Union City Bar & Grill for $215,000.
He also established an office on Water Street in Fairhaven.
The gaming interests that had held an option on the Satkin property allowed the option to expire and refocused on a casino development in western Massachusetts, Rockett told The Standard-Times.
The 1810 Candleworks building, which houses the upscale Candleworks Restaurant on the ground floor, is a former spermaceti candle factory from the whaling era. It was struck by fire in the late 1960s and was scheduled for demolition when the Waterfront Historic Area League and the Architectural Conservation Trust intervened. The building was restored and reopened in 1979 as office and commercial space.
The building and the parking lot on the adjacent parcel at 72 N. Water St. have a combined tax assessment of $1.4 million.
“It’s an interesting historic property,” Rockett said. “It’s got really terrific exposure to Route 18. It’s at the gateway to the Whaling National Historical Park. It’s a trophy property.”
The sale of the building will not affect the Candleworks Restaurant, which is a tenant, Rockett said.
Asked about speculation in the city that he might be considering a boutique hotel on the large parking lot adjacent to the building, Rockett said that he won’t discuss any plans openly at this point.
He said his first priority will be to make some renovations and repairs on the building.
The last time the building changed hands was in 2007, at the height of the real estate bubble, when it was purchased for $1.825 million by a Chicago real estate management firm. Real estate in the national park district has largely defied the slide in valuations in the recession.
The downtown and several other sections of the city have seen strong investor interests, according to Matthew Morrissey, the city’s director of economic development.
He said that Rockett, 44, has amassed an impressive portfolio of investments and has joined several other major investors who have been redeveloping historic structures, including conversions of mill buildings into housing.
“We’ve been building for years,” Morrissey said. “I think the Route 18 reconstruction and its evolution — you can see the end of the project in sight — is going to lead to increased investment interest.”
“Rockett has a pretty robust background in real estate development,” Morrissey said. “I think he has some pretty strong plans that fit with the overall vision of that gateway into downtown.”
The secretary of state’s website indicates that Rockett has invested in Charlestown, Wayland and Boston in addition to New Bedford and Fairhaven. He has also done projects in Providence, said Morrissey.
Rockett said he is enthused about this city’s whaling history. He said he has been listening to “Moby-Dick” on audiobook and was struck by Herman Melville’s glowing description of the city in its whaling heyday.
“New Bedford is a gem with such a history. I just think there’s a terrific upside potential market downtown.”
The Candleworks Building is fully occupied, as are almost all the renovated downtown commercial buildings.
Morrissey said that the downtown has been booming in recent years. “We had 51 storefronts that have expanded or arrived since 2007,” he said. The storefront vacancy rate was 48 percent five years ago, he said. Now it is 6 percent.
Real estate broker Jeff Pontiff, who handled the Candleworks sale, said that he has a waiting list of clients looking for storefront space in the downtown, and he has just one listing.
Office space is another matter, with about a 40 percent vacancy rate suppressing prices and slowing investments.
Most of the slow-moving office space is in what is called B-minus condition, Pontiff said. Top-grade space, meanwhile, is largely occupied, although Sovereign Bank has space available.
Redevelopment is continuing at a good pace downtown, with the Wings Court remodeling now complete and with UMass Dartmouth shopping for someone to develop graduate housing, possibly at the site of what’s descriptively called the “hole” on Union Street where the Keystone Building collapsed. The former Standard-Times building at 555 Pleasant St. is being gutted in preparation for a conversion to office space with a street-level restaurant.
Rockett said that he is eyeing the wind turbine project slated for the expanded South Terminal. “Renewable energy with Cape Wind may be an economic engine,” he said. The Satkin Mills site could be used for some ancillary support services, he said.
By Steve Urbon
June 17, 2012 12:00 AM
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