PAWTUCKET — Where better to gather information for one's “Main Street Initiative” than on Main Street itself? Governor Lincoln Chafee joined Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and a group of state and local economic development and planning officials on Tuesday for a walking tour of the city's downtown.
For the governor, it was part of a series of similar walking tours he has taken in other urban communities such as Providence, Central Falls, West Warwick and Woonsocket. He told those assembled that it was part of making good on a promise that he made while on the campaign trail when he realized that so many city dwellers and business owners were expressing similar concerns and frustrations about public safety, graffiti, vandalism, aging infrastructure, zoning and other limitations that are involved with living and working in an urban area.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee said that despite the drawbacks, what strikes him the most is the wealth of historical buildings located in these cities, which provides “a great potential to grow.” He visited several local businesses located in and around the downtown, including the Shri Yoga Studio at 21 Broad St., Artee Fabrics & Home at 228 Main St., and Lerner Ladds Bartels, an architectural firm soon moving from Providence to a renovated mill building at 161 Exchange St.
The governor also made a brief stop at Slater Mill, where he spoke with a Pawtucket-based artist, Donald Gerola, who wants to do a large-scale fiber arts installation involving the Blackstone River at the historic site. He was accompanied by a group that included Keith Stokes, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, John Gregory, president/CEO of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, Mark Hayward, executive director of the Small Business Development Corporation, Pawtucket Planning Department officials Michael Davolio and Barney Heath, and others involved in the city's revitalization efforts.
Mayor Donald Grebien was quick to point out the many mill revitalization projects that have taken place in Pawtucket due to the state's now-defunct Historic Tax Credits program and urged Chafee to restore it. Chafee responded by saying that, despite the current economy, the program is “a priority” of his administration. Citing some of the misuse that occurred in the last go-around of tax credit recipients, he added that he would like to see stricter guidelines put in place this time to ensure that the program is targeted to distressed urban centers.
“I'd love to raise new revenue,” said Grebien, as he pointed out Pawtucket's noteworthy past as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, its many historical buildings, and proximity to the Blackstone River. He said that one of the key ways to capitalize on these features is by supporting the downtown “growth center” that has been identified in a consultants' study and making other improvements in infrastructure, transportation, and parking. He said the growth center extends from Main Street and the downtown mill district out towards the Blackstone River and the Central Falls line.
The study, as explained by architect Maia Small who worked on the plan, involves reconnecting the old turnpike system so that it is easier for motorists to get in and out of the downtown. She also spoke of the need of connecting the major downtown infrastructure with the river and the planned bikeway and train station, improving parking, and changing zoning and other regulations to encourage more urban development and redevelopment.
Thomas Mann, executive director of The Pawtucket Foundation, outlined for Chafee a plan to develop the parking lot across from City Hall into a multi-level, mixed use development that would provide parking as well as retail and office space. He pointed to the Riverfront Lofts condominium project nearby as an example of a successful turn-around of an old mill building, as well as the recent renovation of a mill building adjacent to Morris Nathanson Design on Exchange Street, and said it makes sense to stretch the improvements further along Roosevelt and Exchange Street.
The governor spoke with Lori Rothemich, a sales associate with Artee Fabrics & Home, who spoke about the owners' planned expansion to additional floors of their Main Street storefront building, and designer Morris Nathanson, who talked about the importance of the Historic Tax Credits program to his own redevelopment projects.
At the tour's conclusion, Chafee said was impressed by the “vision” of Pawtucket's government and business leaders and how organized the redevelopment plans were. “You are ahead of other communities in knowing what you want to do. And we want to be partners in that vision,” the governor stated.