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Issue date: 08/02/1999

Mass. firm finds home in RI

Staff Writer

Unable to afford space in most Greater Boston communities and unimpressed by the treatment he received from some Massachusetts municipal economic development departments, the owner of a growing silk screening company plans to move his business south of the border from Cambridge to Pawtucket. Rick Roth, the founder of Mirror Image, said he was reluctant to leave Cambridge after 11 years, but the idea became easier to accept as he dealt with Rhode Island and Pawtucket officials and learned more about the Ocean State. As of last Tuesday, Roth hadn't closed the $400,000 deal to purchase the former Little Co. building on Exchange Street. He expects to be moved in and open for business by Labor Day.

"Our lease is up, and we actually called around all the economic development offices in surrounding towns," Roth said. "Almost as a second thought I called the Rhode Island Economic Development Office ... the Rhode Island response was light years ahead."

An RIEDC official took Roth on a tour of the state, familiarizing him with a number of communities, commercial properties, and some of the state's other highlights. "It really opened our eyes as to what was possible," he said.

The relatively reasonable property prices also helped sell him on Rhode Island, since his is a small business that doesn't exactly generate Fortune 500 revenues. In Massachusetts, he said, skyrocketing commercial property prices may cause other business people like him to look south too.

"I looked at a building in Watertown, Mass., (which was about the same size and design as the Pawtucket location). It was $2.7 million for the same building," Roth said. "Any kind of small business endeavor, any kind of artistic endeavor there's no where to do it."

Pawtucket officials were more than happy to roll out the welcome mat for him.

"We're very excited about this company," said Herbert Weiss, the Planning Department's program manager for development products. "It's a fantastic opportunity for invigorating our arts and entertainment district."

City officials and the Rhode Island Council on the Arts designated downtown Pawtucket and the area north along the river front as an arts district last December. Writers, composers and artists who live and work in the district will be entitled to income and sales tax exemptions on their original, one-of-a-kind works. The city's hope is the incentives will entice artists to move into the vacant spaces that exist in the old mill buildings and storefronts.

"We're pushing to reinvigorate the neighborhood within this 307-square-acre area," Weiss said.

City officials feel Roth's company will be a good addition to the city, because it is expected to aid in job creation. "A lot of job creation comes from small business," he said. The company's history of helping out social causes is also a plus, Weiss said. For instance, Roth does work for a shelter located across from his Cambridge location and also recently loaned his company van to Amnesty International workers, who drove it to Rome, N.Y., and sold T-shirts for the human rights organization at the Woodstock '99 concert event.

Roth, a Connecticut native, originally moved to the Boston area to attend Harvard Divinity School. Later he decided to start the silk screening business, which he ran in Somerville for a year, then moved to Cambridge. Mirror Image creates high quality silk screen prints for customers such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams beer , and Amnesty International.

They use a sophisticated silk screening process that allows them to "print a picture of a beer bottle on a T-shirt so you can see the water droplets on the bottle," Roth said. They print on canvas tote bags and other materials as well, and will create custom designs or reproduce customer-supplied art.

Though some of his 25 employees may not make the move with Mirror Image, Roth said all his key staff members are coming to Pawtucket. Several of them have already purchased homes here, he added. Pawtucket Planning Department officials, eager to woo a new business to the city, even sent individual packets containing "lifestyle information" for workers, including listings of restaurants and beaches, according to Weiss.

Employees, Roth added, have been pleasantly surprised to find their wages should go further in Rhode Island.

"The head of my artistic department bought a house in Pawtucket for $88,000; it's beautiful. You can't buy a parking spot in Cambridge for that," he said.

Once the company moves to its new building, which at 28,000 square feet is three times bigger than its existing location, plans are for the company to expand. Within the next year-and-a-half the company could add 10 more employees and try new types of services, Roth said.

"We contract out embroidery (work); now we can add that," he said. "We've been cramped. You stop thinking about new things, because you don't have room to do it."

But now he can begin to grow, said Roth, during a recent phone interview from his Cambridge office. "I really like the way things are done down there; there's a lot of potential there."

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