City's first shopping plaza a gateway to small business

Johnston Sun Rise ·

Clayton Shackleton’s great-grandfather and grandfather didn’t always see things eye-to-eye.

Both knew how to build houses. Albert Shackleton Sr. saw the future in building single-family homes. He had the right idea at the right time. It was soon after WWII and young families were looking to move out of urban tenant houses to the suburbs. Shackleton found Cranston and Warwick, which then had a lot of farmland, just the place to build. He acquired the Hoxsie Family Farm that stretched from the west side of Warwick Avenue from Lakeshore Drive to Hoxsie Four Corners and started building.

As Clay tells the story, his grandfather, Albert Jr., worked alongside his father, but instead of being paid in cash asked to be paid in land. He wasn’t looking for just any parcel, nor was he thinking of building and selling. He had his sights set on parcel near the four corners and his dream was a shopping plaza. He was 22 years old at the time.

The Gateway Shopping Plaza become Warwick’s first shopping plaza. Construction started in 1951.

Clay opens an album and points to an excavation. Alongside the foundation forms is a cement truck.

“This was the first building [in Warwick] where they used a cement truck,” he says. It’s not visible from the photograph, but Clay is sure it’s a Campanella & Cardi truck as that was the subcontractor they used.

What can’t be seen from those early pictures or the ones taken in the ’60s and ’70s is that the plaza would become the foundation for scores of homegrown businesses and a future for a third generation Shackleton. Of the 31 Gateway tenants – there are presently three vacancies – only one is a large corporate tenant. That’s Pizza Hut, which opened recently. The store, strictly a takeout and delivery operation, only has two seats and they are for customers waiting for a pickup.

Pizza Hut is a far stretch from the days when the plaza was a shopping attraction and people walked the plaza window-shopping. The bump out features of stores with angled windows and inset doors distinguish one establishment from the next.

Although it has changed names and owners, one of those businesses has been a deli all these years. It started off as Schroders, converted to Millers and then Meulers. Today, it’s Mousies. Lorie Andrews has worked at the deli that her father Ray Tillinghast ran until his death last year for 39 years. She remembers roller-skating from their home in Edgewood to work when she was a high school student.

She takes a moment from her morning preparations to reminisce. She remembers the day when the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store was a plaza anchor. What she misses most is the Korb’s Bakery that was just a door away.

“Maybe we can get another bakery,” she suggests to Clay.

There are several other long-tenured tenants, including Nick & Joan’s Restaurant, 35 years; Lovely Little Laundry, 34 years; Aable Jewelers, 29; Alliance Appraisal, 26; and Real Estate One and Murder by the Book, both at 21.

“When people come in here they tend to never leave,” Clay said.

With three vacancies, Clay is scouting for new tenants, keeping in mind what would fit with the mix.

A Hendricken graduate, Clay attended the University of Denver, where he earned a B.S. in business administration. He has inherited the family’s real estate genes and bought the plaza and a self-storage unit business on Atwood Avenue in Cranston from his father, Clay Sr. in 2012.

“I’m still paying,” he jokes. “We have all got to pay someone.”

Now 33 years old, Clay has expanded his properties to include two smaller plazas and six apartments on Route 2 not far from Warwick Ice Cream. He’s kept busy rotating between the properties, ensuring that tenant concerns are promptly addressed and properties are well maintained. The most recent upgrade to Gateway has been a new 560-foot long soffit that incorporates overhead lighting and provides a façade for signage. Less noticeable is the ongoing replacement of plate glass windows with double paned windows and new doors that serve to insulate.

Then there is the unexpected aspect of owning and overseeing a shopping plaza. That happened on the morning of November 26, 2018.

He pauses in front of Trinity Confections to point out numbering on the knee wall flagstones. Clay was in his upstairs office when an elderly driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake, sending the car into the wall and smashing the plate glass window. Fortunately, Trinity hadn’t opened and the driver wasn’t injured, but it looked like Trinity was out of business for an indefinite period.

At the time of the accident Janine McMahon and her daughters were at the restaurant depot and had just filled their cart with pounds and pounds of sugar and butter. She had booked a number of parties for the next couple of weeks and was stocking up. When she got Clay’s call she asked him if she should start returning items to the shelves.

“Don’t cancel anything,” he assured her at the time, “don’t worry about it.”

When she arrived at the plaza with her supplies, a crew was already at work and, although she had to cancel parties planned for that week, she was back up and running by the next week.

“He’s hands on. He takes care of this plaza. He doesn’t take anything for granted,” she said.

Other tenants stopped by and asked if they could assist.

“This feels like a little Gateway family. We all know each other and care about each other,” she said.

As for the flagstones, Clay said a mason had carefully numbered them so that they could be replaced exactly where they had been.

After all these years, some things don’t change at Gateway – and that’s part of what’s made it successful.


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