Providence's Leaders Tell Its Economic Recovery Story

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Last Tuesday, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Providence Foundation turned the Rotunda Room at the Rhode Island Convention Center into a sold-out love fest for Providence and a celebration of the many opportunities that our changing skyline holds. The idea for the event came from our Bisnow panel in Boston last fall. Many there were taken off guard by the number of projects going on in Providence, not just within our downtown core but interspersed throughout the city. 

And because I was surprised that they were so surprised by all that Providence has going on, we decided to put forth this event, which we called “Providence: An Economic Recovery Story.” The idea was to show the business community exactly what’s changing in terms of our physical landscape. During the event, we heard from Mayor Jorge Elorza; Alden Anderson, Jr., senior vice president/partner of CBRE New England and chairman of the GPCC board; Russell Carey, EVP for planning and policy at Brown University and chair of the Providence Foundation; Christopher Marsella, president of Marsella Development Corporation; and Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

In a panel discussion I moderated, Mayor Elorza confirmed that there are 60 projects under construction or in the pipeline in Providence right now. Together we explored the city’s investments in public spaces and infrastructure, the permit process for developers and entrepreneurs, the hotel building boom, how to attract more meetings and conventions, and the importance of public-private collaboration, downtown parks and intermodal transit hubs. Here are some highlights from our talk:

Where Providence is going

“During the downturn from 2008 to 2012, [Rhode Island’s] academic institutions continued to invest in our market, particularly in Providence, and that really made a huge difference in terms of keeping people at work and keeping the economy moving and taking a lot of property that was functionally challenged and putting it to alternative uses.” —Alden Anderson, Jr. 

“When I think of what we need to do to continue to encourage development, investment and optimism here in Providence, the finances are absolutely fundamental. Nothing else matters unless the foundation is strong. Because of that, over the course of the past three years, my administration has made the city’s finances an absolute priority. What we’ve done is completely, from top to bottom, changed the way that we put our budgets together and manage them throughout the year.” —Mayor Jorge Elorza 

 “[The Wexford Innovation Center] is one of the most important buildings happening in the city right now, and it is absolutely a partnership of private entities and developers with the support of the city and the state. The key of that building is in the Cambridge Innovation Center. … The environment is all about starting businesses and about community. It’s the type of place that will help us in terms of attracting students who want to stay in Providence after Brown, URI, RISD and others. But not only young people—[it will help us attract] anyone who has an idea, [anyone] who’s looking to start a business as part of a community rather than in isolation. That’s very important to the environment of innovation that we’re all trying to create. In just a little over a year that building will be done.” —Russell Carey

“We currently have about 2,400 hotel rooms in downtown Providence. We’ve seen 96 percent to 98 percent occupancy most Saturday nights. We may be adding 600 to 800 new rooms if six to seven new hotels actually open.” —Martha Sheridan

What we still need to do in Providence 

“We’ve got this mythical border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The more we can break that border down and become part of a regional economy, the more successful we will be.” —Alden Anderson, Jr. 

“Anywhere on the planet, but especially in cities, transit is important. Good, efficient transit creates development. Here in Providence, we displaced and disconnected the bus hub from the Amtrak station 30 years ago, and I applaud the state for trying to reconnect those. What they’re studying in terms of future and multiple modes of transportation and having it in one location is really key to not only statewide transit but also how we move around the city. Downtown transit would be a game changer for the city. That’s something the state continues to work on. It’s a big project, but we’ve done big projects before. It certainly closes the loop on the Capital Center changes that began 30 years ago.” —Christopher Marsella

“I want to remind everyone about what’s been happening in our airport in the past year. We have added over a dozen direct service flights, many of them to international destinations. And for the most part, a lot of international visitors want to come into the city and walk. They don’t want to navigate in a car. Having robust mass transit would certainly help with that. They also want to go all over the state—so the more robust and far-reaching our mass transit system is, the better it will be.” —Martha Sheridan

“The role of cities is to find ways to bring people together. … that’s what cities do—you find a way to not just coexist but to thrive together. So while we do have bricks and mortar and buildings going up, which is outstanding, and while we do have institutional assets that are as strong as they’ve ever been and growing, what we have to focus on is the programming to make sure that the network between all of the institutions, people and groups is as strong as it can be.” —Mayor Jorge Elorza 

Read our blog post about the Bisnow panel that inspired “Providence: An Economic Recovery