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RI’s Downtowns - How Are They Doing?

Monday, January 31, 2011

 

President Obama made Main Street a major theme of his 2008 campaign, but how are Rhode Island’s downtown areas faring today? The answers, it appears, are mixed. Along the urban corridor, cities have clearly shifted from survival mode to rebuilding mode while the more affluent areas are coping with the reality that it may take a long time to return those pre-recession profits they enjoyed.

Business leaders in Providence and Pawtucket are spending a lot of time talking about potential these days. They’re pointing to new businesses entering the downcity area in Providence and the creative campaign launched to rejuvenate downtown Pawtucket.

In Newport and East Greenwich, where the hospitality industry is so vital, the opinions are mixed. Some business owners fear 2011 could be another slow year while others believe the slight uptick in sales that occurred in 2010 is a sign of better times to come.

Sense Of Clarity Helps Providence

During election season, the candidates for Mayor of Providence couldn’t go a day without answering questions about the capital city’s depleted downtown area. But now that the city –and the state for that matter- has all of its elected officials in place, Alden Anderson, Senior Vice President at CB Richard Ellis, says businesses could be more comfortable sitting down for a conversation.

“Knowing the people making the decisions helps,” Anderson said. “It was a funny market in 2010. Some buildings had a lot of occupants and others struggled. I think we’ll see an uptick as the economy swings. On a macro level, I’m more optimistic than I was last year.”

According to a report released by CB Richard Ellis, Providence’s downtown office vacancy rate increased from 17.21 percent at the end of 2009 to the current 18.90 percent. Anderson said he is hopeful that number will shrink this year and pointed to Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios gaming company as one of the businesses that will be moving in.

Last week, Mayor Angel Taveras announced a national search was being conducted for an Economic Development Director, which the city hopes will be completed within 100 days.

Potential In Pawtucket?

For as long as anyone can remember, leaders in Pawtucket have referred glowingly to all that their city’s downtown area could be. Unfortunately, the reality has been that the conversation has usually ended there.

Now, with a newly elected Mayor and a concrete vision for the future, it appears Pawtucket might finally be on the right track to realizing its dream. Thomas Mann, Executive Director of the Pawtucket Foundation, says the city should be able to attract business based on its proximity to Providence and multiple transit options.

“We have a unique opportunity here,” Mann said. “The I95 bridge will be completed in three years and we’ll have direct access from downtown to the highway, a commuter rail stop, rapid bussing and a beautiful bike path.”

The infrastructure is one of the key factors that will help Pawtucket see resurgence according to Maia Small, a partner at Thurlow Small, who is leading a downtown design plan for the city and has launched a website at downtownpawtucket.us.

“Pawtucket has this very vocal, very active community,” Small said. “It’s a creative community with real entrepreneurs and while this isn’t going to happen overnight, I think [the city] will be in a good position when the economy comes back.

The Federal Hill Of South County

Steve Cinquegrana has been a business owner as long as anyone in East Greenwich and says he’s still waiting to see the economy return to its old self. The owner of Main Street Coffee, Cinquegrana says he is cautiously optimistic about what the future will bring.

“We’ve noticed increases, but only around two percent,” he said. “Growth would be three-to-five percent. Obviously around this time, it’s very slow, but from St. Patrick’s Day on, we’re good. [Downtown East Greenwich] is the Federal Hill of South County, so I’m optimistic things will improve.”

According to Stephen Lombardi, Executive Director of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce, businesses are becoming more attracted to the area.

“We have a lot offer because of our Main Street and the waterfront,” Lombardi said. “Memberships at the Chamber have increased and were looking to bring more new businesses in. Considering the economy, I think we’re doing very well.”

Up Is The New Flat


As people start to feel more safe with their jobs, Newport County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jody Sullivan says they’re starting to become more comfortable with spending money and going on vacation. And while she admitted to being concerned that Newport could price itself of out the market compared with the Cape or Boston, she said 2010 was a good year.

“We’re slowly getting it back,” Sullivan said. “We’re definitely seeing a trend, many temp agencies are hiring again and the numbers give us a reason to think that will continue. Last year things were actually up, but as everyone is saying, up is the new flat.”

Newport got bad news last month when San Francisco was chosen to host the America’s Cup, but the world’s most famous regatta may still host preliminary events in the Ocean State. If that comes to fruition, Sullivan said it could be a huge boon to the downtown economy.

“It would definitely help retail,” she said. “We believe there’s a very good chance we’ll get to host some of those events. I’m extremely optimistic.”

EG photo courtesy of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce

 

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