Cover Story

PVD is (on the way to) #1

Providence is about to land on America’s radar in a big way.

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If you’re from here, you’re familiar with Providence’s inferiority complex. We’re a small city, and in fairness, we have our share of issues and loud opinions, especially on parking meters and, apparently, on state branding. But if you moved here from somewhere else, you probably have a lot more optimism about the city than anyone who lived through the worst of the Know-A-Guy years. In particular, people outside of Rhode Island view Providence positively. So positively, in fact, that just last year we were America’s Favorite City in Travel + Leisure, GQ’s Coolest City in America and one of The New York Times’ 52 Places to Visit in 2016, in the entire world. It’s the kind of talk that made Austin the country’s It City in the 2000s, and that has Portland, Oregon on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now.

People talk about visiting those cities for the food, the culture, the music. They talk about living in those cities because of the quality of life, the walkability, the affordability. But we’ve got all of those things, too. Providence is unparalleled in its culinary scene, its historicity, its concentration of colleges and universities, its unique cultural character in things like WaterFire, Big Nazo and the RISD Museum. “We have everything we need to compete with any of these booming cities,” says Mayor Jorge Elorza. “Most of the cities I’ve visited have nothing on Providence.”

As for the things we don’t have: jobs, housing, student retention… well, let’s just say there are improvements on the horizon. That’s why Providence is about to land on America’s radar in a big way.

Word is Spreading About Us
There’s hardly a week when Providence isn’t on some new national list: for best coffee, pizza, burgers; as an affordable family vacation, or a gay-friendly city; as a must-see college town or a historic preservation leader. Those big three are huge, but there have been 65 others in just a year.

“The city sells itself,” says Kristen Adamo, Vice President of Marketing at the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “The passion of the people who live here takes over. I don’t think you get that in bigger cities.” Part of the CVB’s work is to spread Providence’s message across the country. When they host reporters (57 in 2015), they connect them to the right PVD people.

“We have a lot of unique people with stories to tell,” Kristen says. “What reporter isn’t going to love [AS220’s] Bert Crenca?”

She also uses the city’s connectivity – our “one degree of separation” – as a selling tool. “I can get the mayor to come to something,” Kristen says. “You can’t do that in other big cities. You go up to Federal Hill, and those guys will come out of their stores to say hello. Writers from New York come here, and they’re a little jaded, and by the end they’re like I want to move here.”

Where food was once the leader in garnering national interest, fashion is our next big topic. All eyes are on Alex + Ani, our neighborhood billion dollar brand, amid whispers of an IPO. Last year, Forbes and Marie Claire did pieces on StyleWeek, and the CVB is doing a lot to promote our vintage scene, including digitizing the Guide to Providence Vintage that Christine Francis-Barta from Carmen and Ginger put together. Their work landed Ann Hood a feature in the upcoming summer issue of National Geographic Traveler about why she loves this city. The CVB’s next big push is historic preservation, in which Providence is a national leader; they brought Brent Runyon from The Providence Preservation Society to New York for “desksides” with editors last month.

People are Moving Here
Chris and Angie Cunico were headed to Boston last fall, where Angie had gotten a job as in-house counsel for Santander Bank. They were headed to Boston, until they figured out that would mean a long commute to an outer suburb. “We were going to be living in a neighborhood we definitely didn’t want to live in,” Angie says. “Between the two of us, we’d lived in Houston, Austin, Charlotte, DC, Nashville, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey,” Chris says. “We had a feel for how much city we actually wanted, and Providence appeared to be that.”

After just a few months, they knew they wanted to stay. “It was appealing because we could find something we liked, and be comfortable, and be in a nice neighborhood,” Angie says. “We have the kind of day to day lifestyle that we want to have, but long term, we can afford to buy a house here. There aren’t many places on the East Coast right now where that’s the case.”

While they love it, the Cunicos are making real sacrifices to make Providence happen. Angie works in Boston, while Chris is still working as in-house counsel in Newark. “It would be nice to work here,” he says. “It’s really a function of the number of bigger companies there are. They’re very good, and they’re very big, but there aren’t many of them.”

“We’re doing some pretty interesting life gymnastics to make it possible to live here, but it’s worth it to us,” Angie adds. “We don’t like that he’s in New Jersey three days a week, but he spends the other four here. We have a great social life, we can go to restaurants, he can park the car when he comes home on Thursday night and walk everywhere that we go.”

“The quality of life here is really good,” Chris adds. “People don’t get it unless they’ve visited. If you can get people to support a workforce that will come and stay, I think a lot of people would. Where else can you drive to the beach, or to another major city, and you have the easiest airport in the country?”

To be able to move to Providence, Rich Pezzillo and Michael DeGrandpre had to do something similar: telecommute from their jobs in Washington DC. Rich, a North Providence native, left in 2001. When he and then-fiance Michael were looking to relocate to New England, the search came down to Providence and Portland, in Michael’s home state. “When we were talking about our future,” Michael says, “one of the things we had as a core value was the quality of life and the quality of people that you encounter in Rhode Island. This is a place that is unlike anywhere in the world.” Considering they both travel extensively for work - Michael, until recently, for 30 weekends a year in different cities – they’re qualified to make that distinction.

“Would we have been able to move here without our jobs in DC? Probably not,” Rich says. “I think that’s what people are going to need to do to make it work here, is to work remotely and establish themselves.” Though neither he nor Michael immediately got a job in Rhode Island – Michael recently started working for a Providence-based marketing firm, after a year of telecommuting, while Rich still works for the Hemophilia Federation of America in DC – they didn’t see that as a bad thing. Because they were working in their living space, the two would leave for lunch every day, and got to know their neighbors through those interactions. “It was amazing to be able to work and live in the same space, to enjoy this unbelievable neighborhood that we have around us,” Michael says.

The two were so taken by Providence, and by their neighborhood, that they dove into enhancing the community, helping to found the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) in October. In less than six months, they’ve established a Downtown Neighborhood Crime Watch, are working with the Downtown Improvement District to restore all of the decorative lights, hosted a graffiti cleanup, set up rush tickets for Downtown residents at PPAC and started “socials” where residents meet up in groups at neighborhood restaurants on slow nights. The DNA is just one force aimed at making Downtown more resident-friendly. The Providence Foundation is working with the Downtown Improvement District and the Downtown Parks Conservancy to develop Downtown outdoor spaces, adding public art, and making them feel clean and safe. “What we’ve found nationally is that the quality of public space is a necessity when you want to attract people and attract companies,” says The Providence Foundation’s Dan Baudouin. “The quality of public space is very important: parks, sidewalks, cafes on sidewalks – people want it to be clean, interactive and fun.”

“It’s such a great feeling of being in a city where things are still developing, but there are so many supporters behind them,” Rich adds. “We’re firm believers that the biggest cheerleaders are those who move here and fall in love with it. Rhode Islanders are Providence’s worst critics.”

...But Those People Need Houses
As more young people move here – and as graduates from our schools are incentivized to stay, but more on that later – the talent pool is getting bigger. But what happens then? Some projections from Rhode Island Housing indicate a 20% surge in Providence households over the next decade, according to Executive Director Barbara Fields. Our vacancy rate is chronically low, just over 4%, so it’s hard to find an affordable apartment or buy a house in the city.

“We see housing as an essential piece of the puzzle in trying to build the economic strength in Rhode Island,” Barbara says. “We create jobs when we invest in housing. We want people to stay here, and they need housing within their reach if we want them to spend within the local economy.” To encourage that, RI Housing offers money to homebuyers: forgivable loans up to $7,000 for recent graduates; $20,000 grants for purchasing foreclosures; mortgages for first time homebuyers. “Last year, we put over $500 million dollars in the Rhode Island economy,” she says.

The incentives are appealing, but that doesn’t solve the problem of where these people are going to live. That’s Christine West’s job. “My sense is that people are ready to invest,” she says. “There’s value to be unlocked in Providence. The smart developers are doing it.” A principal and co-owner at Kite Architects, Christine and partner Albert Garcia led the team that designed the first approved construction on the I-195 Redevelopment Project, on Parcel 8. The building includes 80,000 square feet of new construction, with retail and office space on the lower levels and apartments above, and those LED lights that have people buzzing.

Other projects, like the mixed-use redevelopment at 32 Custom House Street with ground-floor retail space, are being announced by Kite in quick succession. “Our firm is spectacularly busy,” she explains. “All of my architect friends are. When we get busy, in two years people start seeing things happen.” There are no cranes in the sky yet – just ask any of the mayor’s detractors – but there are about to be soon, and will be for a long time.

“We’re under capacity,” Christine continues. “We don’t have enough housing for all of the people who want to live here. It drives the economy, but it does mean that while we’re under supplied, prices are going up.” The rent increase between 2014 and 2015 was the biggest we’ve seen in a decade, according to RI Housing, and tax increases are pointing to higher rents this year, too. Realtors, especially on the East Side, are busier than they’ve been in years. But the concern,aside from schools, which is a conversation for another time, is attainable price points for all of this new development. Yes, it’s great that people are moving here, but eventually they could price us out of our own city. “The only way you can keep the rents approachable is to make the units smaller,” Christine says. “There is a trend toward smaller housing, but you trade off space for proximity. That’s the nature of cities.” Given the perpetual waiting list for micro-lofts at The Arcade, it only reinforces the need for smaller space development, like the apartments going in at 95 Chestnut Street, which are right-sized for more economical living.

...And Most Importantly, They Need Jobs
So we’ve got pieces in place: the talent pool, the positive messaging about Providence and the places to house everyone. Then there’s the elephant in the room – there still aren’t enough jobs to go around.

“When you think of what we need in Providence to kickstart our economy and reverse the brain drain, we need something like Wexford Properties,” says Mayor Jorge Elorza of the science and technology development going into the 195 space. “That’s a game changer. They do shared workspace, but they do shared workspace supercharged,” he explains. “They also do programming to facilitate the ideas of one institution mixing with the ideas from another.” Wexford will develop the two largest parcels of 195 land in three phases.

The mayor also cites successes in workforce development, like the culinary program at Providence Career and Technical Academy, which trains the next generation of restaurateurs, as an investment in future jobs. And, there are large corporations investing in the city, like Deepwater Wind, which is building the nation’s first wind farm off Block Island and assembling the turbines in Providence. “In assembling these massive wind turbines, they’ve put 300 people to work,” he explains. “This is the first time in the nation this Deepwater Wind project is happening. If this works, there’s potential for great growth for the state.”

Particularly exciting, especially for a foodie city, is the new Cromwell development in the Armory District: 40 residential units, and the entire first floor as shared space for chefs to try out new concepts before launching their own restaurants. “They’re Brooklyn developers,” the mayor explains. “This has been successful in Brooklyn, and they have big plans for Providence.”

Cromwell also plays to our strengths, which according to the Brookings Institution study commissioned by Governor Raimondo, are shellfish and design (among others). “We’re not a corporate town,” Christine West says. “Everyone I know has a really interesting job. There’s a correlation there. Providence is where people who want to do what they want get to do it.” She suggests the idea will become more of an asset as our national star rises. “People can have creative and unique jobs, and it’s the kind of culture that promotes that,” Christine explains. “I know people who make money handcrafting jewelry, or in fashion or photography. To be neighbors with an oyster farmer? Come on. If that’s our strength, then the branding can be that you can choose your own destiny in Providence.”

To that end, the City has just rolled out the Providence Design Catalyst Program, intended specifically to promote these creative, innovative jobs. A collaboration with RISD, the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, DesignxRI and the Community Development Block Grant, the program gives entrepreneurs grants of up to $35,000, plus technical assistance and mentorship. The stipulation is that recipients have to live in and do business in Providence. The program is just one thing in place to help alleviate brain drain from departing graduates. “I’ve met with all of the university presidents, and in our first conversations I told them that more than anything, I want their students to stay here. They’re willing to partner with us to help develop the local economy and make it a more receptive, inviting place for graduates to stay.” Mayor Elorza also has a five year plan in the works to make Providence a hub for innovations in the technology surrounding aging, connecting Dementia and Alzheimer’s research at Brown with senior housing design development at RISD, with physical therapy innovation at URI, with food as medicine study at JWU, to make Providence the center for innovators in that industry.

Can PVD Be the Next Austin?
One major piece of national visibility that we’re missing is a marquee festival, like Austin’s South by Southwest. This year’s PVD Fest on June 4, building on the resounding success of last year’s Providence International Arts Festival, is built with scalability. Austin’s music festival grew to a week of SXSW Interactive conferences just beforehand. “There’s nothing stopping us from doing something similar,” Mayor Elorza says. “I came back thinking Austin is a great city, but in terms of raw materials, there’s nothing that they have that we don’t have that can help us develop a festival,” he says. The comparisons to Austin don’t end there.

“One of the things that’s so appealing to me about living here is that it feels like Austin did in the ‘90s,” just before its SXSW and tech booms, Angie Cunico says. “It’s the same kind of indie, artistic, higher education focused city. I see that growth for Providence.” But, she says, “As many things as we liked about Austin…” Chris continues: “We like being here more.”