Innovation Ecosystem

The quest for gold by seven RI cities, in pursuit of collaborative solutions

The Working Cities Challenge in Rhode Island, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, narrows the field to seven cities seeking to build a new solutions for urban economic development, based upon collaboration and community, funded with private philanthropic dollars

Photo by Richard Asinof

Eric S. Rosengren, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, left, and Gov. Gina Raimondo, holding a media scrum outside of AS220 to discuss the Working Cities Challenge in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/15/16
At a media scrum outside of AS220, where Gov. Gina Raimondo and Eric Rosengren, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, held court to talk about the Working Cities Challenge in Rhode Island, in the shadow of the former 38 Studios building, it provided a fascinating contrast in economic development strategies: investing in companies vs. investing in communities and neighborhoods, and investments made by the state as part of its economic development strategies vs. investments made by private philanthropy.
If healthier housing is the best prescription to produce better health outcomes, how does that fit into the equation of the new collaborations in the seven cities awarded design grants? How do residents in the communities get to participate in the choice of what narratives to follow? Is there a way for new members to join the ongoing collaborations in the seven cities? For instance, how does the new Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls, being built in partnership with Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, become part of the collaborative in Central Falls? How does the creative tension between promoting Rhode Island as a tourist destination and the economic reality of failing communities in resort destinations such as Newport play out? When will Rhode Island develop a quality of life index as an economic development tool? When will the state promote its cultural diversity as a key economic development strategy? Will there ever be a full accounting of what happened with 38 Studios?
The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Sankofa Apartments, featuring 50 affordable rental units, will take place on Friday, Aug. 26, at 10:30 a.m, on Westfield Street in the West End of Providence between 224 and 230 Dexter St. It is part of a larger community initiative focused on creating an urban farming location and permanent marketplace adjacent to the new apartments. It is very much a neighborhood-driven enterprise focused on the needs identified by residents about what they wanted and needed.

PROVIDENCE – A brief media scrum was held outside AS220 on Empire Street, following the announcement on Aug. 12 in the AS220 Gallery space: seven cities had been selected to receive design grants for up to $20,000 to compete in the Working Cities Challenge in Rhode Island.

The winning proposals, announced before an enthusiastic crowd of delegations from the winning cities [the recipients had already been informed about the outcome], were from Newport, Pawtucket, East Providence, Providence, Central Falls, Cranston and Westerly.

The seven had been chosen from 11 applicants out of the 13 cities originally deemed eligible to participate, which had included North Providence, Johnston, Woonsocket, Burrillville, Warwick and West Warwick.

[To qualify for consideration, the 13 cities identified had to be small to mid-size, with populations between 15,000 and 250,000, have significant low-income populations, have median incomes below $82,000, and have high poverty rates for families (above 5.9 percent) and individuals (above 8.9 percent), according to the Working Cities Challenge requirements.]

In roughly six months’ time, three of the seven cities chosen to compete in the design phase will be awarded up to $500,000 from private philanthropic funds to implement their plans.

Nicolas A. Brancaleone, communications consultant with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the overall sponsor of the Working Cities Challenge, told ConvergenceRI that this is the first time he had ever been inside AS220.

The decision to stage the grants announcement at AS220 had been made jointly by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office, Brancaleone explained.

As fate would have it, the media scrum took place on the Empire Street sidewalk, just outside the AS220 restaurant, in the shadow of the former 38 Studios office space that was now the Providence home of the urban campus of Roger Williams University.

It was a detail of stagecraft that had apparently eluded both the governor’s and the bank’s staff. [There had been too much commotion to hold the media scrum inside the restaurant, created in part because AS220’s annual Foo Fest would kick off later that evening.]

And, in a rare opportunity, ConvergenceRI got to ask the first two questions of Raimondo and Eric S. Rosengren, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the overall sponsor of the Working Cities challenge.

The conversation turned out to be as revealing as what had been said inside at the stated event:

ConvergenceRI: Here we are, in the shadows of the former 38 Studios building…
Oh my God!

ConvergenceRI: And here you are, launching an entirely different kind of economic development strategy…
[recovering] That’s a good point about the building. That’s a great point.

Yes, it is an entirely different approach. This approach is rooted in the core belief that each community has to pull together and work in a collaborative fashion to solve their problems of economic development.

It is also a core belief that if we’re going to rebuild Rhode Island, it’s going to be done one city at a time. And the people who are running a city or the stakeholders in a city or town, they are the ones who will have the solutions.

If you are in the city of Newport, you live there, you run a business there, you are in touch with the needs there, you are going to come up with a solution.

What we are doing is encouraging and promoting private funding for that solution.

ConvergenceRI: [directed at Rosengren] From the Massachusetts perspective, you have an ongoing Gateway Cities initiative. I was wondering how you would differentiate with what is going on with Gateway Cities and with what you are doing here in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts with the Working Cities Challenge.
There are many similarities. We have actually had two rounds of competitions in Massachusetts. The first round was a bit on the experimental side. I think that the cities that got the first round of grants have been actually quite successful.

Which is why the state of Massachusetts decided to have a second round. And so, we based some of the learning about what went well and what didn’t go so well in Massachusetts and brought it to Rhode Island.

We certainly wanted to make sure it was tailored to what the needs of Rhode Island are. And, one of the key components is what the Governor highlighted: it’s really the local government, the local nonprofits, the local businesses, that are going to have the ideas and provide the sustainable kind of achievements that we want to see [happen].

[The winning grants are] only for three years. The hope is that this is the kind of collaboration that is left behind and stays there and works with any of the [future] problems that these cities are facing.

That’s what we’ve seen in some of the Massachusetts cities.

Pardon the interruption
[Editor’s note: In his answer, Rosengren did not address the differences between the Working Cities Challenge, driven by private philanthropy in partnership with the state, and the Gateway City initiative, an economic development initiative where cities who won that designation qualified for economic development investments by the state. It’s an important distinction.

The term Gateway City, first coined by a 2007 report co-authored by MassINC and the Brookings Institute and funded in part by the John Adams Innovation Institute, originally described 11 cities across Massachusetts that were seen as struggling regional economic centers outside of Greater Boston. They included: Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester.

In May of 2008, the chief executives of those 11 Gateway Cities gathered at the Old State House in Boston to sign a compact to unite their administrations in future efforts aimed at economic and community development, expressing a desire to work together cooperatively.

In 2009 and then amended in 2010, the Massachusetts Legislature created a legal definition of what it meant to be a Gateway City, expanding the initial designation to include 13 more cities, each with a population between 35,000 and 250,000, an average household income below the state average and an average educational attainment rate below the state average. Two more cities were added in 2013, based upon U.S. Census data.

By becoming designated as a Gateway City, such cities can qualify for certain state grants, tax credits and investments in economic and community development. The additional 15 communities include: Attleboro, Barnstable, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Leonminster, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, Peabody, Quincy, Revere, Salem, Taunton and Westfield.]

Back to the scrum
KATE BRAMSON, Providence Journal: How many cities are going to be eligible to receive the final awards?
We are looking at possibly three cities to receive the final implementation grants. It will be a little bit up to the selection committee. We [expect to have some] very strong proposals form which to provide the grants. We’ll have to see how the proposals come up. But that is our expectation.

The design grant is really to make sure that the communities had enough collaboration. I think they have had really good ideas. But the six-month [design grants] are really designed to get a little more clarity to what those proposals are and actually figure out how every member of the team is going to work together and actually get that proposal to move forward.

This is one of the innovations [that grew] from the first time we did this [in Massachusetts], when we didn’t have design grants.

And, I would say that the proposals were not as strong as in the second round, when there were design grants – a little bit of money to be able to galvanize the community.

The hope is that not only the winning cities, but those cities that don’t win, come out with really good proposals that they can implement – whether they get funded by us, or they get funded by other organizations.

Whether you’re getting a grant or not, you’re going to be a winner in this competition.

ANITA BAFFONI, news reporter, WPRO: If five cities come forward with really great proposals, down the road, are you looking to get more funding?
We’ll have to see how the funding comes in. We’ll have to see how the proposals come in.

In Massachusetts, the way it worked, we ended up having a second competition.

The goal is to make sure that we get something achievable that we can be all be proud of when we’re done.

RAIMONDO: It’s all about raising more money. This has all been done primarily with philanthropy. And I agree with Eric; if this is a good process, every city is going to come up with a good proposal.

And, if they are not in the winning three, I will certainly be willing to help them continue to find funding to make them work.

ConvergenceRI: How will you do that….
[interrupting] …This is also about making sure that no one is left behind. As we recharge our economy, as we create jobs, we need to make sure, and I’m committed to making sure, that no one is left behind in that economic resurgence.

As you heard today, a lot of poverty and low-income folks reside in our small to mid-size cities, and so it’s not just about the big, shiny new company in the big cities, it’s about making sure that the average person in Pawtucket, in Cranston, in Central Falls, in East Providence gets a good job, too. That’s what this is about.

This is a bottom-up proposal. As I’ve said, there is no magic bullet.

ConvergenceRI: If the process proves to be successful, is this something that the state may be willing to invest in, with its own economic development money, and not just with private philanthropy?
We’ll have to see how it goes.

ROSENGREN: I would say in Massachusetts, we had a switch of governors, we had a Democratic governor before [Deval Patrick]; we have a Republican governor now [Charlie Baker]. But they chose to continue to fund [the effort], and they chose to start using [our process] for some of their own programs, to be designed more like our program.

The key point was: giving money to a city that does not have collaboration is probably going to [result in] a very low rate of return.

They have been changing the way that they have been doing some of their grants in housing and in other areas, to make sure that collaboration is part of the grant giving.

The seven winning proposals
In each city’s proposal, there was a long list of collaborators to go with a vision and the identification of the specific problem to be addressed. It may be more information than desired for many readers, but it provides a deep dive into the way that cities themselves see their problems – and the solutions.

In Central Falls, the vision was described as follows: Sylvian Street, a major east-west thoroughfare, has long harbored a blighted presence in Central Falls. A reputation of absentee landlords and migratory tenants creates a dilapidated urban streetscape and a hotbed for violent crime. The Working Cities Challenge presents an opportunity to reverse these outcomes that impede our community’s progress.

The problem to be addressed: Central Falls is the smallest city in Rhode Island at just over one square mile, but the city also has the highest violent crime rate in the State of Rhode Island. Much of that crime is centered on Sylvian Street, which is one-eighth of a mile long and runs through the center of Central Falls.

Through a multi-disciplinary effort, the Working Cities Challenge team seeks to take the worst street in the city, and through innovative partnerships and public investment, make it the best street in the city and an urban success story.

Revitalizing Sylvian Street and cleaning up major crime issues would provide a very different and more welcoming quality of life for families that live on the street. Positive changes to Sylvian Street would greatly bolster other significant economic and educational reforms that the city underway or are on the drawing board.

In Cranston, the vision was described as follows: The Cranston Working Cities Challenge team seeks to unite all sections of Cranston in an effort to provide low income and racially diverse residents the opportunity to prosper from economic and cultural change.

The problem to be addressed: The Cranston Working Cities Challenge team will address the growing division and segregation between economic, racial, and ethnic groups within Cranston.

According to U.S. Census data, Cranston has increased in size [by] 1.4 percent over 10 years, but has lost economic ground evidenced by an increase in poverty rates from 8 percent in 2000 to 11.2 percent in 2010.

The city is divided by areas known as Cranston East and Cranston West; that division is also considered a racial divide. The Cranston team wants to tackle this issue head on because the team believes that no other kinds of positive, forward-thinking economic and educational strategies will be successful unless the racial division is addressed.

In East Providence, the vision is described as follows: Riverside will realize its vision of revitalizing its Riverside Square “Main Street” with an “Arts District-feel,” consisting of work/live spaces, galleries, restaurants, small first-floor retail, music venues, dynamic public spaces, complementing the existing recreational amenities of two waterfront parks, an historic carousel and the most popular bike path in Rhode Island.

The problem to be addressed: From 1990 to 2015, East Providence steadily lost 30 percent of persons ages 25 to 34, yet the Riverside area has the highest concentration of young, one-person households in the city.

The Working Cities Challenge team in East Providence seeks to engage this disenfranchised community in a process of revitalization, resulting in them defining and internalizing a vision to work towards a comprehensive approach, specific outcomes, and business investments, all leading to an improved quality of life for its residents and visitors.

In Newport, the vision is described as follows: The Newport Working Cities Challenge team seeks to have a well-established, integrated and efficient workforce development system that prepares low-income, unemployed, and underemployed Newport residents for higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs. The workforce development system will also ensure a pipeline of candidates is available to fill vacancies in high demand industries within Newport.

The problems to be addressed: The Newport Working Cities team is addressing poverty (24.4 percent of children), mobility (the city lost half of its population over the past 50 years and the population decreased 7 percent since the last Census) and subpar high school graduation rates (79 percent), through a workforce development program that properly prepares students and adults for high-demand, high-paying jobs.

In Pawtucket, the vision is described as follows: The Pawtucket Working Cities Challenge team seeks to reduce unemployment for Pawtucket residents and improve the economic climate for low-income residents and residents of color.

The problem to be addressed: According to Census data, 32.1 percent of children under age 18 and 15.2 percent of adults over age 65 are in poverty in Pawtucket. The Working Cities team will focus on increased economic opportunities and social equity for Pawtucket residents, by leveraging the city’s assets, including its diversity, its history, and the new designation of The Blackstone River Valley as a National Historical Park.

The new National Historical park will ultimately consist of multiple, non-contiguous sites within the existing Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor and will likely include areas of the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket and nearby mill towns, including Slatersville (in North Smithfield) and Ashton (in Cumberland) in Rhode Island and Whitinsville and Hopedale in Massachusetts.

The new park will bring jobs, a renewed sense of pride, and will help to boost the local economy through tourism.

In Providence, the vision is described as follows: Through a partnership of nonprofit, for-profit, and the public sector, Providence seeks to re-imagine workforce development by creating a holistic and integrated system that aligns the needs of employers for trained workers with the skills of residents through the efficient delivery of customized and relevant training that leverages blended funding.

The problem to be addressed: The Providence Working Cities Challenge team will work to implement system change efforts to close the gap between employers and residents seeking employment. In 2014, 13.7 percent of Providence residents in the labor force were unemployed, compared to just 9.3 percent in 2000. Providence has many residents with inadequate skills to gain employment or who need to “skill-up” to move beyond low wage jobs. The city has employers who need to hire employees, but have trouble connecting with Providence residents looking to work.

In Westerly, the vision is described as follows: The Westerly Working Cities Challenge team seeks to improve the perception and livability of the North End neighborhood by raising education levels of the residents, developing the workforce, expanding access to employment opportunities, and bridging the neighborhood to the downtown.

The problem to be addressed: In 2015-2016, 53 percent of students attending Springbrook Elementary in the North End neighborhood were eligible for subsidized lunch, compared to 47 percent statewide. Additionally, many are not demonstrating adequate academic performance. By focusing on this specific problem, the Westerly Working Cities Challenge team anticipates that an increase in employment opportunities and workforce development for parents and families within the North End will, in turn, increase school attendance and overall student performance.

Driving home the messaging
Here are some brief excerpts from the earlier speaking program:

Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano: “Not everyone in Newport lives on Bellevue Avenue. Newport has the highest low-income per capita students and housing in the state. We need affordable housing for young people; young people can’t afford to stay in Newport.”

Shauna Duffy, managing director, AS220: “When we are involved in these partnership conversations, we make sure to tell people we are artists, that creative people are at the table making decisions, and that we not foreigners plopped in to gentrify [the city]. We are local people, we’re neighbors, we care about our neighbors, we are part of the community, and we give back.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo: “My job is to reach out to folks like Eric [Rosengren] and say: we really, really need the money. Forget about all those other states; come to Rhode Island. I do that every day. Then, I turn it over to my staff, Stefan [Pryor] and Darren [Early] and say: OK, make this work.”

“The [Working Cities Challenge] doesn’t require state funding. We are still in a deficit, so we’re being creative. I know money’s tight, the budget’s tight, but we have things to do. So, it’s about being creative. Thank you to all those partners who have stepped up with your capital.”

“I want to quickly recognize Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who is doing a great job at the R.I. Department of Health. One of the programs that we’ve launched together is the health equity zone initiative, which is quite similar to this, which is about communities collaborating with hospitals and providers.”

Eric Rosengren, president and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston: “This is a different kind of development program. So frequently when you think about development, you think about buildings. Certainly buildings are a part of development.

When you think about development, you think about bringing new employers to the community, and bringing new people to the community, and that’s an important part of development as well.

But this is really different. It’s about how do we help make the people who are in the community, who are there now, to build a safer, better, more vibrant community.”


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