On January 30, 2019 I had the opportunity to sit in on an open meeting with the City of Providence. The Economic Development Advisory Committee was meeting to progress their discussion regarding development projects in the city of Providence, Rhode Island presented and led by Bonnie Nickerson the Director of the Department of Planning. I had no preconceived idea of what this meeting will be like never having any past experiences with government affiliated events. I was surprised to see the extremely casual nature of it all. Due to the meeting being held at 12PM, there were sandwiches, snacks, and drinks available to all of the participating members. Very modest were the foods consisting of Cheetos and cranberry juice. The 10 members, 3 female presenting and 7 male presenting, sat around a rectangular desk set up in the J. Doorley Municipal Building’s dining hall. Ages ranged from an assumed mid 30s to mid 50s. Many dry jokes were thrown around to break the tension of digging into their ham sandwiches. The meeting official started around 10 minutes past 12 and initialed the appointing of a new Vice Chair. The leader of the meeting, Nickerson, asked if anyone supported to rejected this appointment. There was a lackluster response of ayes and no nays. Thus the new vice chair assumed his new position.
Nickerson recalled the subject of their previous meeting surrounding the situation of allowing more high school students to transition more smoothly into the local work force. A plan was shared involving the high school students to concurrently take classes in local colleges to receive teaching degrees and maybe allow for the students to become certified teaching assistants in their alma mater. Funding was a problem due to the categorization of scholarships to exclusively provide for high school or college not considering that a person would be in both at the same time. I found this prospect intriguing in that there was no precedent to this idea and was one that I speculatively can see benefiting communities in Rhode Island. The transition from high school to working or college to working is one that most people have to face at a point in life but differs drastically based on the access and systems available to help promote more fruitful paths. It was very refreshing to see that there were some people in positions of power that was placing an importance on the younger generation and realizing that their paths are different from the ones available now.
The subject then quickly transitioned into the developmental projects that were in place. I was very concerned that much of the meeting was one person bringing everyone else up to the same page. Many clarifications and communication of projects rather than any progressive discussion or collaborative thinking. I came to wonder how all of these people contributed to the greater picture. If this was the Economic Development Advisory Committee and many were hearing these projects seemingly for the first time with me, what were the individual persons occupying their time with and working on? It was a simple question filled with biased assumptions on my part but the lack of awareness and near apathy that radiated from some of the members was quite dissonant.
Past the projections I placed on the members who lacked participation, I was very impressed by Nickerson’s contribution and professional stature. She touched on many factors that require consideration in developing a city for the long term. The first was to identify vacant catalytic development sites outside of the downtown area. 6 geographic areas were suggested as places to instigate new projects and boost incoming investors to areas of stagnation. Past identifying the areas in which they were wanting to push projects to progress was a basic introduction into what types of projects were more desirable than others. Surface parking lots were immediately placed under the projects that were considered not good investments. There was a push and pull of market and government. It would be quite easy to build more CVS pharmacies all around but the benefit of having those versus parks or other local business do not align. However making space for potential businesses to move in is also difficult in that demolition is strictly regulated by the government. A fully processed and approved permit to build the new site must be all set and ready in order to file for an existing structure to be demolished. Providence being a city full of historic sites and remnants from the past does not make it easy to knock down buildings and build fresh. It is a difficult mix of appealing to bring in a new influx of people to add to the communities and to provide for those already existing in this space. A hot topic that seemed to appeal to many of the members was the making of spaces that were retail on the bottom floors for accessibility and residences above. An amalgamated building system that is prevalent in most east Asian cities today. An important factor that was discussed was the creation of maker spaces for collaboration and community building as well. The focus of the meeting was quite unclear as to what was wanted as a collective. I could hear the agendas that Nickerson was bringing to the table but did not hear much feedback or response to these proposals. While I do realize that there is a lot of work done behind the scenes of the meetings in which I am not exposed to I am curious as to what exactly is being done to move these projects forward.