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RI Commerce Lures Vistaprint with $2.2M in Subsidies, Unaware Competitor MOO.com is RI-Based

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Stefan Prior, Heads Commerce

The Raimondo Administration on Wednesday announced that Vistaprint and the potential of 125 new jobs are coming to Rhode Island over the next three years. But, RI Commerce admitted in a phone interview that they were unaware that one of Vistaprint’s competitor Moo.com is already located in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Moo.com is a design driven competitor who has been building its business in RI since 2009.

In the interview with GoLocal, Commerce’s Stefan Pryor trumpeted the Vistaprint deal, but admitted he had not heard of Moo.com.

Moo.com originally was located in East Providence, but in 2016 moved to a bigger -- 40,000 square foot -- facility in Lincoln.  Moo.com reports it has offices in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and in the United Kingdom.

Moo.com has received glowing reviews globally. The Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner wrote about Moo.com in 2013,”think Vistaprint, but with a hipper aesthetic...”

“Online print and design company Moo is attempting to reinvent the old-school business card for the digital age with Business Cards Plus, printed business cards embedded with near-field communication chips that turn them into launch pads for your online portfolio, social media channels, company app or website, music demo, or anything else you want people to see online” wrote Slate magazine about the company that employs approximately 400.

Raimondo at a campaign event at Robbins' mill complex

This is not the first time that RI Commerce’s due diligence comes into question.


In 2015, a GoLocal investigation found through a public document request to the Governor’s office, Commerce Corporation, Providence Mayor’s office and Providence economic development officials that none of them had a single meeting with the Teespring in 2015. The company tagged as one of the hottest in America moved to Kentucky and California. As GoLocal wrote:

In 2014 and 2015, Teespring raised $55 million in venture capital funds from many of the top funds in the country. The Brown start-up has been compared to an Uber and AirBNB type of company and is expected to do over $200 million in sales in 2015. All of this business momentum is great news for the Brown University - spinoff, but the bad news it now growing and hiring in San Francisco and Kentucky and not Rhode Island.


CA Slumlord In 2016, an on-going GoLocal investigation unveiled that Commerce Corporation authorized millions for Lance Robbins — a developer who was known to be Los Angeles’ worst slumlord. 

GoLocal reported in a 20 piece series on the issue in California, North Carolina and Rhode Island: 

Governor Gina M. Raimondo and the Board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation voted to provide Urban Smart Growth — which is run by controversial developer Lance Robbins — up to a maximum of $3,569,657 in Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credits.

Teespirng left RI for Kentucky and California

However, one of the top advocacy lawyers in the country, Lauren Saunders, told GoLocalProv.com following the announcement on Tuesday, “Robbins was one of the most dishonest and unscrupulous people I have come across in my career working for vulnerable tenants and consumers. I cannot imagine entrusting any (public) money to him.”

Saunders, who is Associate Director of the National Consumer Law Center in Washington, DC, had battled with Robbins when she represented tenants in Los Angeles, CA where Robbins operated before relocating to Rhode Island.

The National Consumer Law Center's, whose mission is "serving low-income consumers," states that it is "committed to supporting and advancing diversity inside and outside the organization." Saunders clarified that her comments on Robbins were hers, and not of the center's.

“Lance Robbins was the worst slumlord in L.A. history. The city's Slum Housing Task Force prosecuted him numerous times for horrible conditions at his buildings. He also ran up huge water bills at his buildings that he refused to pay, and the city was reluctant to shut off the water for fear of harming the tenants. I filed a False Claims Act case against him and he was forced to pay $1 million in back water bills," Saunders told GoLocal.


While Pryor is a talented deal-maker, staff due diligence at Commerce seems to be lacking.

Moo.com has been located in RI since 2009

Vistaprint’s Impact on Rhode Island

While Moo.com has been working to build its business in Rhode Island, Vistaprint comes in with a state sponsored incentive program blowing at its back.

Pryor said that this is a new office for Vistaprint and if Rhode Island did not win it , the jobs would go to another state and having it come to Rhode Island is a net win for Rhode Island.

Governor Gina Raimondo said about the announcement of Vistaprint "The economy is growing, and today's announcement means more good-paying jobs for Rhode Islanders. I'm thrilled that Vistaprint Corporate has chosen Rhode Island for its national sales office. Rhode Island provides exactly what Vistaprint Corporate was looking for-access to talent, a high quality of life, fiscally responsible incentives to make our state competitive during its search and long-term potential for growth."

Raimondo’s office referred questions about the potential deal’s impact on Moo.com to Commerce.

Pryor defended the incentive program and its impact. He said that any company can apply for the program. He said that Commerce has completed seventeen deals like Vistaprint in the past 17 months and if all of the milestones are hit then the program is estimated to produce over 1,400 new jobs and more than $40 million in cumulative new revenue over the next decade — on average $4 million a year.

In addition, Pryor told GoLocal that attracting Vistaprint may help to develop an industry to Rhode Island as talent is attracted to markets where there are multiple options for career development.

Moo.com did not respond to outreach from GoLocal.


Related Slideshow: Lance Robbins Controversies Through the Years

There are dozens of issues and hundreds of articles about Robbins controversies. GoLocal has broken down a dozen of the conflicts that have taken place across the country over the past 30 plus years.

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LINDA DEUTSCH, Associated Press
Jun. 5, 1986 

Residents of a dilapidated building who say they regularly fight off armies of giant rats, swarms of cockroaches and youth gangs that roam their hallways have sued the building's owner for $10 million.

Attorneys for the Spanish-speaking residents related nightmarish stories of cockroaches biting sleeping children, a rat they said tried to drag a baby from its bed and another that allegedly attacked a man in the shower.

They said tenants feel rats crawl over them at night and some stand guard over babies all night, fighting off the rodents with brooms and slingshots.

The lawyers opened roach traps on the front steps of the South Union Street building near downtown to display dozens of huge cockroaches, some still crawling, which they said were caught in the building overnight.

The lawsuit, filed jointly in Superior Court by four private and public- interest law firms, accuses building owner Lance J. Robbins and his associates of refusing to make repairs, curb vermin infestation or provide reliable water, electricity or security in the 40-unit building, which houses large families in one-room apartments.

Robbins said Wednesday that none of his employees in the building have seen any rats and, ''I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a lot of this at the news conference was staged.''


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Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1986, "Landlord Issues 5 More Violations"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 1 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 2 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 3 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2000 PART 4 on the article Titled, "City Attorney Joins Lawsuit Against Landlord"

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Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2002, "Slumlords Donated to Delgadillo"

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Los Angeles Times, Oct 25, 2005

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Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1, 2005, "State Moves to Pull Real Estate Liense of L.A. Landlord"

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Robbins Loses Real Estate License

Realty Times, January 18, 2010

Real estate broker and attorney, Lance Robbins, both owned and managed numerous "slumlord" apartments in the city of Los Angeles. This, as acknowledged by Robbins's attorney, was an extremely lucrative business. The record suggests, though, that Robbins took less than adequate care of the apartments under his control. Between 1985 and 1995, Robbins had been convicted of some 50 municipal building code violations. He was twice disciplined (1991 and 1994) by the State Bar for "facts and circumstances surrounding habitability violations in properties" that he owned.

In January of 2001, Robbins pleaded nolo contendere and was convicted of three misdemeanor violations of the fire protection and prevention provisions of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. He was fined $100 and placed on summary probation for 18 months. In March of 2003 the Department of Real Estate filed an accusation alleging that Robbins's convictions constituted cause for the suspension or revocation of his license as a broker.

http://realtytimes.com/todaysheadlines1/item/2962-20100119_licenseREAD MORE HERE

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Lauren Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center is one of the top tenant advocacy attorneys told GoLocal on Tuesday. 

Robbins was one of the most dishonest and unscrupulous people I have come across in my career working for vulnerable tenants and consumers. I cannot imagine entrusting any city money to him.

Lance Robbins was the worst slumlord in L.A. history. The city's Slum Housing Task Force prosecuted him numerous times for horrible conditions at his buildings. He also ran up huge water bills at his buildings that he refused to pay, and the city was reluctant to shut off the water for fear of harming the tenants. I filed a False Claims Act case against him and he was forced to pay $1 million in back water bills.

He was also extremely ingenious about using a complex web of sham corporations to avoid liability. After the fines from his slum violations and his back water bills started adding up, he started foreclosing against himself and putting his buildings into receivership to escape accountability. His buildings were in numerous different corporations and partnerships and he put loans in other names against his own buildings, then started a foreclosure action. He then asked the court to appoint a "neutral" receiver who he chose who actually just let Robbins stay in control of the building.  We detailed that in the same lawsuit.


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Developer Getting $3.6M in RI Tax Credits Sued by N. Carolina Town for Backing Out of Project

Urban Smart Growth (USG), the developer who just received nearly $3.6 million in tax credits from Governor Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, was sued by the Town of Belville, North Carolina, in 2015 for backing out of a project, GoLocal has learned...

Robbins and USG stated on Monday that they are intending to utilize the Rhode Island tax credits to complete a $38.9 million project to develop 150 loft apartments at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. 

However, in North Carolina, a stalled USG project has led to the Town of Belville to seek arbitration, following its 2015 lawsuit against USG, who in 2007 had entered into a twenty-year agreement to develop a mixed-used project along the town's waterfront.

Not only did the project never come to fruition, press reports show that USG engaged in discussions with the adjacent town of Leland to annex Belville's downtown and undertake the project with them instead. 

"We need to bring [Robbins] to light. It's really a shame-- he goes and buys up cheap property and tries and hoodwinks the local city councils to fund this kind of development," said Peter Schardien, who is the husband of Belville Commissioner Donna Schardien, of Robbins. "He's an attorney, or he used to be, and he knows how to get around things. He's no good."

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Former Business Partner of Robbins of USG Sued and Received $28M - and Warns RI

Frank Gamwell, a former business partner of Lance Robbins of Urban Smart Growth (USG), has said that he would "never do business with him again" after suing Robbins for $28 million and ultimately receiving the amount in arbitration.

Now, Gamwell is warning that Rhode Island should be doing its "due diligence" in dealing with Robbins. 

On Monday, USG was awarded $3.6 million in tax credits from Governor Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to develop lofts at Hope Artiste Village. 

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"This Just Isn't Fair,” Says Restaurant Owner About Developer Robbins Getting $3.6M in RI Tax Credits

A former restaurant owner at Hope Artiste Village said that she "wished she had sued" Urban Smart Growth (USG), the management company that was awarded $3.6 million in tax credits from the RI Commerce Corporation this week.

Rosinha Benros, who had opened and owned the restaurant "Rosinha" at Hope Artiste Village, said she had a number of issues with USG -- including having had gas being turned off due to USG not having paid their National Grid bill.  

"I opened that space, I created that place," Benros told GoLocal on Thursday, of the restaurant she ran for over three years. "I can't even drive by, I loved that place so much. It just breaks my heart."
Benros said that issues with the change in management, coupled with having problems with The Met being located next door, led in part to her closing the restaurant.
USG's CEO and principal is controversial developer Lance Robbins, who in California was cited with 105 health and building-code violations, piled up 32 convictions, paid a $1 million fine, to name a few of his legal problems, according to press reports.

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RI Security Firm Says Developer Robbins of USG Won’t Pay $23K Bill

A former security services vendor for Hope Artiste Village is claiming that owner Urban Smart Growth (USG) never paid them $23,583 for  services in a six-month span starting in 2013.

“We started services on December 13, 2013 and ended services on June 21, 2014. They paid a total of six invoices during our services,” said Karen Voisard with Metropolitan Public Safety, who provided the check stubs from USG. “As of current standing with the company we are owed $23,583.00 for eighteen overdue invoices. That doesn't include any of the late charges as stated in our contract.”

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Former Owner of Blaze Restaurant: USG’s Robbins “Threatened to Bankrupt Me”

Phyllis Arffa, the originator and owner of the restaurant Blaze, said that Lance Robbins of Urban Smart Growth threatened to bankrupt her when her business was struggling at Hope Artiste Village.

Arffa, who owned and operated Blaze on Hope Street in Providence before moving to Hope Artist Village in 2015, said that she has had to go back to working in a kitchen to pay back $70,000 in debt that she accrued while trying to make Blaze work under Robbins, which she said she ultimately had to step away from due to financial and health reasons. 

"I wish I never met [Robbins]. I had money in the bank, we were all set to relax for a little while," said Arffa after moving from Hope Street to the Hope Artiste village.  "Now, I'm working 12 to 12 to just to pay back what I owe."

Arffa showed a text sent by Robbins threatening to bankrupt her.  

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Robbins Crushed Local Baker

The former owner of the Bread Lab at Hope Artiste Village, which is owned by controversial developer Lance Robbins, said she found him to be “morally bankrupt” as she was forced to close her operations in 2015. 

Deana Martin, who had owned the Bread Lab with her husband, said that she battled with Robbins over a number of issues -- including the insurance money following the destruction of her bakery equipment due to the mill’s sprinklers going off one night. 

“If you don't give him what he wants, he'll use whatever leverage he has to get what wants,” said Martin.  “If it furthers his benefit, he'll take it from you, and the legal proceedings are just that — if he wins, he claims he’s not ‘guilty.’


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