PROVIDENCE – The Chafee administration’s economic development projects tend to be high-profile, big-ticket items such as creating the Knowledge District in the former I-195 corridor, revitalizing the airport/train station district and continuing the Quonset Point expansion.
But in the Blackstone Valley, Chafee has his eye on revitalizing the main streets of the small distressed cities.
He has made much-publicized tours of Main Street in Woonsocket and Broad Street as it links Central Falls with Pawtucket.
One of the way they have addressed the businesspeople’s concerns, he said, was with access to capital, which is coming in the form of $5 million in Small Business Administration loan guarantees – out of the same fund used for the controversial loan guarantee to Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios – which back 90 percent of a bank’s loans to the company.
“Another is safety concerns, in the evening hours in winter; we’re working with the municipalities on that,” Chafee said in a meeting with reporters. “If it takes an occasional State Police presence, we are willing to look at that. We want to really put a focus on letting businesses prosper in these distressed communities’ Main Street areas.”
Infrastructure is another way the state could help, he said. “If there are crumbling sidewalks, graffiti, some landscaping – there used to be a tree here and vandals broke the tree down or a car hit it in an accident we can get it replanted.”
He said his message to mayors and community leaders is: “How can we help?”
“There is good news out there,” Chafee told The Times. “People are making it on the Main Streets.”
Chafee recalled visiting with Chris and Hanna Garrison, who bought the Honan Block building on Main Street in Woonsocket.
Having moved here from New York City, they now live upstairs in their building and are leasing the storefronts downstairs, one of them for the Tandoori Restauant, which replaces the Main Street 2000 Restaurant with Indian cuisine.
“He was a photographer and she was in the jewelry business and they came up from New York and bought a building, they bought a building on Woonsocket’s Main Street,” the governor said. He said he asked Hanna Garrison if she was encouraged or discouraged by the experience and she answered, “’We’re encouraged, this is great. When our friends from New York heard we were going to Woonsocket, they thought we were crazy. Now they come to visit and they say, you bought a building.’ In Manhattan, that is inconceivable.”
“So we want to help that couple, and others like them that are investing, making a go of it,” Chafee said, excited in the telling of the story. “There is potential there. It is really cool.”
Chafee said he “inherited a difficult situation,” because his predecessor, Republican Donald Carcieri, “never addressed the revenue side of the budget. It was all on the cut side and there’s not a whole lot left to cut. They cut cities and towns to the point where Providence is awash in red ink, Central Falls is in receivership, Pawtucket had to borrow money to make payroll, Woonsocket and West Warwick are close behind. They are all in dire straits.”
One of the ways he is trying to ameliorate the situation, he said, is by “making investments in the future to ward off potential problems.
“The biggest of those is municipal pensions. Fifteen municipal pension funds are in worse shape than the state’s, some of them much worse.
He said he has put $19 million in his budget to “look ahead” to trying to solve those problems.
The money would be made available to cities and towns who meet certain benchmarks to funding their pension plans. But some mayors have complained that the benchmarks are too high, and they can not allocate enough money from their already strained budgets to be eligible for the extra state funds.
“We will work with them,” Chafee pledged. “This is not about unrealistic expectations. This is about us all working together to solve a problem. We’ve got $19 million on the table to help us do that. That’s better than zero. That’s better than a cut, which my predecessor had in his budget.
“To the critics: stop looking at the dark side, start looking at the bright side. We’ll be flexible, we’ll work with you,” Chafee said.
“I want to be very accessible, anytime anybody at the local level wants to meet to talk about issues where we can collaborate, I understand their issues because I was a councilman and a mayor.”