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A homecoming of sorts for city planner

June 12, 2011

PAWTUCKET — Michael P. Davolio, the city's new Planning Director, has traded in the peaceful views of the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound for a more industrialized urban landscape that surrounds the Blackstone River. Yet for the Shrewsbury, Mass., native, taking a job in Pawtucket provides a homecoming as well as a challenge that he says he's excited to be taking on.
Davolio arrived this week from his home in Olympia, Wash., and has been busy settling in to his new downtown office in the city's Planning Department on the third floor of the Chester Building at 175 Main St. He assumes the post that was held by longtime city employee Michael Cassidy, who retired last June after 40 years in planning.
Davolio has spent the last 20 years working in various planning positions in and around the capital of Washington. He was previously a project manager for a private company constructing a $300 million mixed use “city center” development in an Olympia suburb. He also served as Planning, Building and Community Development Director for the city of Auburn, Washington.
His resume also includes a recent stint in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emerites, where he worked as planning manager for a company building new communities in the prosperous and growing region.
Yet Davolio has solid New England roots. After graduating from Worcester State University in 1979, he worked as a city planner in Worcester, served as planning director for Leominster and was a town administrator in Orange, Mass.
“There are many who have told me they are happy to have someone from far away to bring new ideas and also happy that I grew up here and know the region's history,” said Davolio.
The new planner said he sees the “great potential” of Pawtucket, because of its position on the Blackstone River, proximity to I-95 and the new rail station that is in the works in the Barton Street area. “I'm really looking forward to working on the rail station project and that will be one of my priorities,” he said. “This is one of the best ways to make a community thrive.”
When asked about finding re-uses for Pawtucket's large inventory of old mills, Davolio said he has experience with old mills in Massachusetts and Maine, and thinks many still have potential with the right developer and tenants. He also sees potential in the downtown, but concedes it's “a chicken and egg kind of thing.”
Davolio said, “For a downtown to be successful, you need people to be here after 5 p.m. Businesses bring in people in the daytime, but then they leave. You really need the housing to have people here at night.”
Davolio said that while critics might say Pawtucket's turn-around has been slow, an undertaking as ambitious as trying to transform a city needs to be looked at in terms of decades, not just years. He noted that the efforts to revive Pawtucket by positioning the city as an arts community has only been going on for about 10 years. “Wait another 10 or 20 years to judge the success of this,” he said.
The city having the historic Slater Mill museum and the surrounding property being tapped as a future national park site along the Blackstone River corridor also excites Davolio. He noted that Lowell, Massachusetts, another old industrial city like Pawtucket that is filled with mills, has a downtown area that was designated as a National Park more than 30 years ago. “It took awhile, but eventually, it became a success. Today, it is known as an urban national park,” he said.
Davolio said he was impressed by many of the city officials and business leaders he has met so far, as well as the city administration, and particularly Mayor Donald Grebien. “I'm very much looking forward to working with the mayor. He's young, energetic, and has the interests of the city at heart,” Davolio said.
Davolio, who is an avid photographer, also said he liked the city's annual calendar with its schedule of municipal meetings and events like the PawSox games, and the way it gets members of the community involved through a related photo contest. “These are the positive things,” he stated.
Davolio said his wife, who works as a teacher, will be joining him once her school year is over. The couple has two grown children, a son who lives in Washington and a daughter who is attending Emerson College in Boston. He cited the proximity to Boston and his daughter as another plus in taking the Pawtucket position. “I'm just happy to be here,” he said.


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