It was just over a year ago, or COVID Eve as one might say, when Kathryn Farrington, vice president of marketing at Discover Newport, received a call from HGTV, the ever-popular home improvement and real estate channel, requesting video footage of the area. “They had contacted us before for specific projects, but this time were very vague about what they needed it for,” says Farrington. Turns out, Newport, or Portsmouth actually, was selected as the site of the HGTV Dream Home 2021. A sweeping montage was soon created, broadcast, and posted online to whet their viewers’ appetite for not only the sweepstakes but the beautiful City by the Sea. From December 28, 2020 through February 17, 2021, eligible fans could enter for a chance to win twice per day at HGTV.com.
The destination promo video, which clocks in at just over a minute, shows glamorous views of mansions, shoreline, lobster rolls, surf boards, and sail boats. “We knew we had to pick a location that would wow our viewers for the 25th anniversary, and Newport has every element a destination needs to provide that, including natural beauty, aspirational lifestyle, and decadent architecture,” says Brian Patrick Flynn, interior designer for the project. “Every detail about the home, from the construction to the design elements, captures the spirit of Newport and the grandness of the HGTV Dream Home, making our 25th home the most impressive yet.”
The HGTV Dream Home Giveaway is among the most successful consumer promotions in cable TV history, and in addition to the fully furnished home, the grand prize package includes $250,000 from Rocket Mortgage and a 2021 motorhome from Camping World: a combined value of more than $2.8 million. However, to Farrington, the exposure given to Newport County and the Ocean State is invaluable, especially with viewership spikes attributed to “stuck at home” programming. “The advertising and promotional value of the production and the brand recognition to the area is something I could never afford!” Along with her staff, Discover Newport works to promote the city and its eight surrounding townships as premier destinations for business and leisure travel. “We are considered more of a ‘drive than fly’ market destination, but this kind of market reach… I could never pay for this!”
To lure film and video productions to Rhode Island, the state offers tax credits as incentives. However, Carol Conley, assistant to the executive director at the RI Film & TV Office, let us know that HGTV did not utilize the Motion Picture Tax Incentive but did offer this nugget: “According to the University of Rhode Island’s Distinguished Professor of Business, Dr. Edward M. Mazze, for every $1 invested in the tax credit, over $8 of economic activity will result.”
Farrington points out that along with national exposure, there are all kinds of economic ripple effects from the production. “Think of the purchase of real estate, commissions, the town taxes, building permits, architects, excavators, plumbers, carpenters, painters, etc. This provided good jobs over several months for lots of folks. Anything that can benefit our local economy is a win-win,” she says. “To pull off what they did during a pandemic is amazing.”
Along with national sponsors, HGTV, or Discovery, Inc. its parent company, utilized local resources – including the builder, JPS Construction & Design, Middletown – via referral from Tracie Hall, Keller Williams. Says JPS Owner Jamie Stebenne, “This project required a 100 percent commitment due to the complexity and relatively short time frame we had to meet the HGTV production deadlines and onsite filming schedule. We designed and built the home in about seven months time, with excavation beginning on the very day Discovery inked the purchase of the land.” He continues, “Any project of this size helps to keep our staff of roughly 50 employees busy and we employ dozens of local subcontractors to help us deliver the quality, fit and finish the customer demands, in this case, Discovery. I have to believe lots of people saw the HGTV special showing the beauty of the area, and some of them are probably planning vacations to Newport as we speak. It’s definitely a win for the island.”
And of course, whenever a crew is in town, they patronize a range of businesses. Downtown Newport is only 20 minutes from the Dream Home and Flynn, who resides in Atlanta with frequent forays to Reykjavik, Iceland, was a regular fixture around town. “22 Bowen’s is my regular place for lunch and I usually run to Kilwin’s for ice cream two to three times a week,” Flynn shares. He scored vintage tennis rackets at Aardvark Antiques on Connell Highway, and coastal accents and furnishings at Ben’s Furniture on Thames – family-owned and -operated for over 78 years and three generations – to the delight of owner David Bolusky. “Newport has so many unique shops and businesses that embody life on the island so it is appreciated that the HGTV design team made the effort and took the time to shop locally and show off what we all have to offer,” says Bolusky.
“Any time an event or production like this comes into town there is obviously an economic benefit for so many different shops, restaurants, and service providers that extends beyond the actual money that was spent. This type of exposure is priceless. There was definitely an increased ‘buzz’ during the last few months due to HGTV’s massive PR and social media campaign and I expect that it will continue in the coming months,” says Bolusky.
“We definitely see an uptick in interest whenever Rhode Island is prominently featured in a production – and even sometimes when it’s not,” begins Brian Hodge, deputy director of communications and marketing at Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, a quasi-public agency and official full-service, economic development organization for the State. “In the case of Downton Abbey, for example, the increased fascination with the time period helped generate an additional 200,000 visitors to the Newport Mansions annually. And each visitor to Rhode Island brings significant economic impact to our communities. In 2019 – the latest year we have data – RI hosted 26.2 million visitors, generating more than $840 million in state and local taxes alone. We very much value any opportunity to share Rhode Island’s beauty with a broader audience, whether it’s in person or on the screen.”
Much like TF Green Airport is actually in Warwick, not PVD, the Dream Home is in Portsmouth, not Newport, but whomever the lucky winner is, they’re not likely to be distressed over these Rhodyisms. And even though the architectural style is a Cape Cod, it’s very much a manse – or cottage on steroids – from the outside in. “The exterior is covered in naturally sealed cedar shakes as a nod to the Rhode Island and New England architecture,” Flynn tells of the 3,300-square-foot house, which boasts four bedrooms, three full bathrooms and two half-baths, a library/home office, a good ol’ rec room, open concept living and dining spaces, and a rooftop deck. Windows abound showcasing unobstructed views of the Sakonnet River below the bluff on which the house is situated. “Every single detail is based around the experience of living in Rhode Island.”
Inside the Dream Home, Flynn’s designs are more yacht club than beach house, perhaps inspired by a sail on historic 12 meter yachts he and his crew took with Julie Lassy of America’s Cup Charters. No white walls and bamboo Roman shades here; instead Flynn mostly adheres to a handsome Americana colorway of warm shades of red, blue, and brown. In contrast to awe-inducing features like the two-story chevron fireplace facade and polished nickel chandelier in the great room, pieces like a round rattan coffee table, striped rug, and plenty of pillows keep the overall feel welcoming and casual rather than intimidating, which is no easy feat in a home of this scale. Other charming elements include the triumphant return of wicker and caned chairs, but in new forms. Says Flynn, “I wanted classically coastal textures in the house but applied in fresh manners, and I think the different shapes and scale and finishes of those things puts a modern day spin on them.”
Unexpected but mindful touches add to Flynn’s relatable approach to outfitting spaces for everyday life, like the library/home office’s glass door. “With so many people working from home and on video and conference calls while kids are also distance learning, I like the idea of being able to see if someone inside the home office is currently live-streaming through the glass so as not to disrupt an in-process call,” Flynn tells us of the design choice.
Each of the four bedrooms has its own vibe. Within a guest suite on the main floor sits a mid-century inspired workstation complete with retro record player (with Bluetooth, of course) and Beatles LPs; another is classic preppy all the way with a tartan headboard; and upon learning of RI’s surf scene, Flynn was inspired to create an aqua room with surfboards attached to the wall as sculpture. Even the garage is spectacular thanks to a splashy paint-by-number mural by HGTV build manager Dylan Eastman.
Sometime next month a tidal wave of attention will return to the place described by HGTV as “one of America’s top vacation destinations, offering residents and visitors a cultural experience and lifestyle full of world-class dining and oyster shacks, music festivals and sporting events” as the channel ramps up for the winner to be announced “around May 10.” Until then, many who have entered the sweepstakes (there were over 144 million entries for the 2020 Dream Home in Hilton Head) will be daydreaming about life in the biggest little state with luxe amenities like a European open concept bathroom, warming trays in their outdoor kitchen, and a three-hole putting green.
Says Farrington, “Whether or not the winner will actually live in the home or sell it, in many ways, the entire state benefits and we thank HGTV for choosing our destination, a place where dreams are made.”