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What Does Providence Need in Its Next Mayor?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


What does Providence's next Mayor need to know -and do - to move the city forward?

As the 2014 Providence Mayor's race continues to gain momentum, GoLocal asked local community and business leaders, "What does Providence need in its next Mayor?"

The field, which currently includes Republican Dan Harrop and Democrats Lorne Adrain, Jorge Elorza, Michael Solomon, Brett Smiley, and Chris Young, might not be finalized -- John Lombardi could still join the mix, and speculation continues to swirl around former Mayor Buddy Cianci's intentions.

"The next Mayor will need a life preserver," quipped Michael Riley, founder of Coastal Management Group and GoLocal Mindsetter, of the fiscal challenges facing the city's next chief executive. "It will be a question of prioritization."

Andy Cutler, partner in Cutler & Company and Founder of Smaller Cities Unite!, called for the next Mayor to have a "big picture" vision.  "I firmly believe we need a Mayor that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Budget issues aside, the key is having someone in the office deal who can deal with those issues, but on a parallel track, move other agenda items forward. We need someone who can see the city as a brand." 

With Mayoral candidates forming their campaign platforms and vision for the city's future, GoLocal talked with stakeholders who shared their hopes for what the next Mayoral administration can accomplish.

Call for Community Focus

Frank Shea, Executive Director of the Olneyville Housing Association, called for the next Mayor to be someone who "views the city as a whole and who understands how healthy neighborhoods, healthy neighborhood business districts and a healthy downtown are not exclusive of one another but that all are necessary if we are to have a healthy Providence."

"Providence's next Mayor needs to be someone who recognizes the power of our urban centers that create a walkable and liveable community, and how the city's centralized merchant areas are a hub for neighborhood vitality," continued Shea. "And with this, works to create an infrastructure that supports the small and local entrepreneurial businesses that make up these hubs."

On the other side of town, Pernilla Frazier with the Hope Street Merchants Association addressed both broad economic issues - as well as ones specific to the East Side.  

"The next Mayor should continue and improve the 'shop local' movement," said Frazier, who owns Kreatelier with Line Deams. "The dream for us is to get the trolley bus to come here. The next Mayor overall should highlight and define the specific neighborhoods across the city."

Frazier noted the association hoped it could replicate downtown in one particular realm -- lighting. "We are launching a campaign to finance street lighting, to be similar to that of downcity's Westminster [Street]," said Frazier. "Studies show that they improve safety, and help define a neighborhood. We're applying for every grant, and hope that the city can match those funds."

Mount Hope Neighborhood Association Executive Director and community activist Raymond Watson said the next Mayor "needs to be able to balance the concerns and needs of Providence's under served populations with the overall development of the City."

"MHNA is implementing this type of strategy in Mt Hope and we're calling it an "S&D" strategy for the neighborhood; "Sustain & Develop". We realized that in order for the community as a whole to do well we have to be able to fully address the needs and concerns of neighborhood residents, while also supporting and providing positive opportunities for neighborhood residents to better themselves," said Watson.  "It has to be simultaneous and strategic, but it's the only way to ensure that we're servicing the community the right way."

Watson continued, "I was just watching the documentary that Barnaby Evans put together for Waterfire and reflecting upon the fact that Providence has literally grown into a world class and renowned city. Then I look at the rampant unemployment and the violence and lack of achievement by many of our youth and I am reminded of his much work still needs to be done. I think the next Mayor, despite who they are, will need to be able to balance these two elements in order for our City to be the best that it can be."

Vision for the Future

Urbanist Cutler believes the next Mayor will need to be successful in marketing Providence -- to the rest of the world.  

"We need someone who sees our city as a brand -- and values that, covets that, and thinks about that 24/7," said Cutler. "Not just as someone serving in office, but someone concerned with how the rest of the world perceives us." 

Cutler noted that cities including Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Austin all had offices committed to advancing their city's "brand" -- and international cities did as well. "Copenhagen has Visit Copenhagen responsible for their brand...so does Pittsburgh with Global Pittsburgh. They're very much keeping a finger on the pulse, while finding new ways to advance their image."

"My fear is we're falling behind in these discussions internationally. We were once a "silk road" -- manufacturing, higher education, finance -- all roads led through Providence, and they don't anymore. We need to be relevant. How does our city remain relevant to the rest of the world? By attracting and retaining new talent," said Cutler.  "I've worked with hundreds of students over ten years, and it's proven the brain drain theory. The easiest way for a community to retain students is to get them involved before they graduate." 

On the topic of education, East Side parent Michele Meek, who has been an outspoken activist for bussing issues this year, said, "We need a mayor who's courageous and innovative, one who has the foresight and follow-through to make city-wide improvements, instead of a mayor who is using the job as a stepping stone. We need someone who can develop and implement concrete strategies to improve schools, transportation and employment in the city. We need less talk and more action."

Economic, Fiscal Priorities

Dan Baudouin with the Providence Foundation touched up the work accomplished -- and still needed to be done -- in downtown Providence. 

"Our organization has enjoyed a close working relationship with Mayor Taveras, and we look forward to continuing that partnership with Providence’s next mayor and administration. Economic development remains a top priority, and we want to attract knowledge-based companies into the downtown district," said Baudouin.  "We will continue to advocate for appropriate development incentives and a more competitive tax structure, including no increase in the tax rate for commercial properties. We are pleased with many recent improvements to the city permitting system, and we want to see that progress continue with the next mayor."

Baudouin continued, "We support several proposed institutional investments—including the Brown/URI/RIC South Street Station reuse and development plan and Johnson & Wales University’s planned addition. To help generate more activity downtown, we also need improved transportation links between downtown, Brown University, and the Jewelry District. The next mayor's efforts to keep these initiatives on track will be important. Finally, we expect the next mayor to champion the efforts of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy, which aims to transform Greater Kennedy Plaza and surrounding public spaces into real assets for the city."

Cliff Wood, who works with the Providence Foundation, wore his hat as Director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy to echo the need for open space cultivation.  "We need to know that open spaces aren't just for fun, but necessary and essential reasons for why people move to cities and stay there," said Wood.  

Wood acknowledged the fiscal reality facing the next chief exec in Providence.  "We need a mayor who understands partnerships with a diverse set of stakeholders -- what city's could accomplish in the 40s, 50s, 60s, just doesn't hold true today."

Financial analyst Riley addressed what he saw as the dire "bottom line" scenario facing Providence -- and what the next Mayor might have to do to address it.

"The next Providence Mayor has serious financial issues to confront. I applied Moody’s current standards to correct for the misleading numbers issued by the city just last year. My analysis shows the Providence pension and OPEB problem are enormous -- combining to $ 59,000 in debt per household. Providence is only 21% funded and a candidate for receivership," said Riley. "They are simply the worst funded city in the Country for a city of greater than 50,000 population and that’s after the reforms

"Providence needs a “reset," said Riley -- who offered his suggested approach. "They need to move to a hybrid benefit plan. Current employees will have to take cuts. The town must honor older and low earning retirees by not touching their benefits but they also need to make clear that the rules have changed for all active members. They need to cut back services across the board and lower benefit factors. Providence should also impose a large supplemental tax," said Riley, who added, I give [Taveras] credit for raising taxes without revolt and for extracting payment in lieu of taxes from Providence institutions but he’s hit the wall on taxes and I doubt he can’t go back for more PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes).

Riley made a bold prediction for the future. "I expect there will be a call for Pension Obligation Bonds. These have been used in desperation by some cities , notably Woonsocket and Detroit , in order to delay the inevitable. That issuance , when it happens, is not a good sign." 


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Taveras Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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#10 Fundraising

Can Taveras Keep Up with the Big Boys and Girls in Fundraising?

In America today, one issue that is a factor in nearly every election is fundraising. To date, Taveras has yet to demonstrate any consistent ability to keep up with the leading fundraisers in RI.

Taveras will have to compete with General Treasuer Gina Raimondo, who has $2 plus million on hand and a likely run from Clay Pell (grandson of US Senator Claiborne Pell and whose wife is Olympic skater Michelle Kwan).

Raimondo is on pace to raise $5m and Taveras presently has just $692,000 on hand and would be on pace to raise less than $2 mliion. 

Pell's family has access to nearly limitless dollars - back in the 1990's Pell's grandfather was ranked as one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

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#9 Curse

Can Taveras Break the Providence Mayor's Curse?

For more than 60 years, no Providence Mayor has been successful running for Governor of Rhode Island. You have to go back to the 1950 election when Dennis Roberts was elected Governor.

Since Roberts, a number of Providence Mayors have taken their shot at running for Governor and each has failed mightily.

Most notably, Buddy Cianci's run against J. Joseph Garrahy - Cianci got less than 30% of the statewide vote.

Joe Paolino was expected to win the Democratic primary in 1990, but was beaten badly by Bruce Sundlun and then Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty.

Sundlun went on to win the general election and Flaherty was later named to the state Supreme Court.

Taveras will have to break a very long curse.

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#8 Hire or Fire

Can Teachers Trust Taveras - and Will Voters Trust His Relationship with the Teachers Unions?

In the midst of the city's political meltdown, Taveras just into his first few months in office fired all the teachers in Providence.

Taveras received strong public support, but within months he capitulated to pressure from the teachers' unions.

Three years later, he is emerging as the candidate of the teachers' union leadership. Will teachers trust him in a statewide race and will voters trust him if he is perceived as too close to union bosses?

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#7 Hispanics

Will Hispanics Vote as a Block in the Primary for Taveras? Are They Influential Enough in the General?

Conventional wisdom is that Angel Taveras will get a big boost from the Hispanic voting block in the primary, but more recently Council members Luis Aponte, Danian Sanchez and Sabina Matos have all openly battled with the mayor on his tax increases and efforts to close pools in low income wards around the city.

While Taveras can rebound and the impact may be large in the primary, the percentage of voters who are Hispanic in the general election is just 7% according to Pew Research:

  • Rhode Island’s population is 12% Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic population share nationally.
  • There are 54,000 Hispanic eligible voters in Rhode Island—which ranks 35th in Hispanic eligible voter population nationally. California ranks first with 5.9 million.
  • Some 7% of Rhode Island eligible voters are Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic eligible voter population share nationally. New Mexico ranks first with 39%.
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#6 Temperament

Can Taveras Handle the Campaign Pressure and the Office Pressure of Governor?

Taveras had no experience as a chief executive in business or government before taking office in 2011 in Providence. He has increasingly gotten into some very non-productive scrapes.

In 2012, his law office delivered a document to GoLocalProv as part of a FOIA request and those documents included the social security number of every retiree of the City. Instead of taking responsibility he sent his lawyers to court to try to block GoLocal from writing about the mishandling of social security numbers. The judge ruled against Taveras.

In 2013, Taveras has tried to demolish a commuity swimming pool in South Providence because, according to Councilman Danian Sanchez, Sanchez would not vote for Taveras' tax increase.

Will Taveras be able to prove to voters he has the right stuff?

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#5 Base outside Prov

Can Angel Taveras Build a Political Base Outside of Providence?

While Taveras has a strong political base in Providence, it is unclear if he can build a strong political network in critical Democratic strongholds like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence.

It is well known that both Democratic Mayors in North Providence and Johnston have had a strained relationship with Taveras.

This strain has played out over critical matters like mutual emergency aid and in 2012, North Providence, Johnston and East Providence all cancelled emergency aid compacts with Providence.

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#4 Women Voters

Can Taveras Compete for Women Voters?

When Taveras ran for Mayor he won the critical block of East Side Democratic women. Part of his success with this critical block of voters was the support he enjoyed from Democratic power Myrth York. 

The two-time Democratic nominee for Governor went all in for Taveras in 2010, but she no longer is active in the inner circle and reportedly would have supported Governor Lincoln Chafee in the primary.

Taveras will need to compete with Raimondo who has already signed former EMILY's list bigwig Kate Coyne-McCoy.

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#3 Star Power

Can Taveras Keep Up with Clay Pell's Star Power?

In 2010, Taveras ran under the motto of "from Head Start to Harvard."  His claim on the American dream proved a successful juxtaposition to two Democrats who had the same political base - Federal Hill (Steven Costantino and John Lombardi).

Now, Taveras may face the fresh-faced Clay Pell. His bio exceeds Taveras as he can claim the legacy of his grandfather's work and hit the circuit with his superstar wife, Olympian Michelle Kwan.

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#2 Issues and Vision

Can Angel Taveras Articulate a Vision for Rhode Island?

Taveras earned good scores for managing the City of Providence's financial crises, but never seemed to develop major policies for economic development, schools, parking, crime, reducing the cost of government or improving the efficiency.
The Superman building's closure happened on his watch, technology company Dassault Systèmes is moving out of Providence, and no major employers were recruited into the city other than the scrap yard on Allens Avenue.
Taveras will need to define a forward looking vision for Rhode Island.
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#1 Crime and Education

Can Taveras Explain His Record on Crime and Education?

The biggest problem for Taveras is his record in Providence.
Most people care about the basics - their jobs, education for their children, how safe their neighborhood is.  These vary questions could be Taveras' Achilles' heel.
According to GoLocal's study of the FBI crime data, Providence is ranked #2 for violent crime per capita in Rhode Island.
The condition of Providence's schools may be worse. Of the 24 schools ranked as poor (de facto failing) in Rhode Island by the Department of Education, 6 of them were Providence Schools and in the rankings of the best high schools in the state, most of Providence's schools consistently litter the bottom of the rankings.
Taveras lead the city to win the $5 million Bloomberg award. But in a Governor's race one of Taveras' opponents is sure to ask, "Mr. Mayor, are you going to bring the same policies you used on crime and education in Providence to the rest of the state?"

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