PAWTUCKET — Belying a kindly face and cheery demeanor, the words “tenacious” and “pugnacious” often pop up when people describe Herb Weiss. That artful blend of being able to act like a pit bull while possessing the personality of, say, a Labrador has contributed to the city official's success and led to his being recognized with the Blackstone Valley Excellence in Arts and Business Award from the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council this year.
Weiss, Pawtucket's economic and cultural affairs officer, will be presented with the award during the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council's 28th Annual Meeting. The event will be held on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Twin River Event Center in Lincoln.
Also being recognized at the event are the Stillwater Mill, Harrisville, receiving the Footprints in History award; Central Falls Provisions, Central Falls, and Athena's, Woonsocket, for the Blackstone Valley Distinction in Business Award; the Blackstone River Theatre, for the Arista Prize — Rhode Island; William Cantana, president, Cantana Hospitality group, for the Arista Prize — New England; and Alex and Ani, LLC, for the Arista Prize — National.
Additionally, Michael A. Hebet, supervising, historical preservationist/archeologist, RIDOT; and Daryl Sherman, internationally acclaimed singer/pianist, will be inducted into the William Blackstone Society that evening.
For Weiss, the Excellence in Arts and Business Award caps off 14 years spent as a tireless advocate for Pawtucket's arts community and its business landscape. He was originally hired back in 1999 during the administration of Mayor James Doyle by former longtime Planning Director Michael Cassidy. He now works in the same capacity for Mayor Donald Grebien, under Planning Director Barney Heath.
In the Department of Planning and Redevelopment, Weiss works on economic development activities, the oversight of cultural and artistic programs and fundraising for city festivals. He has long been the face of the Pawtucket Arts Festival, and while no longer serving as chairman, is still instrumental in securing donations from area businesses in support of the event.
Weiss is also involved in trying to attract new businesses to the city while also making sure that existing ones don't venture to other communities when seeking more square footage or a different type of space. He knows where all the vacant mills and commercial properties are, and at the first whisper of a business owner or entrepreneur who might be looking for a location, Weiss springs into action. “I put on my dog-and-pony show,” he states. “I take people around and show them available places in the city.”
Some of the success stories of vacant or underutilized buildings being repurposed include Rag and Bones book bindery, the TK Club and the Rhode Island Antiques Mall. “Economic development doesn't happen in a day, and finding a property is not one phone call,” says Weiss. “Sometimes, you work with people and it can take months, or even years. But you have to put your nose to the grindstone until a project is over.”
Weiss has been instrumental in the growth and development of Pawtucket's Arts and Entertainment District. He was there at its inception under the Doyle administration, when the state legislature passed a bill allowing artists living and working in the district to not charge sales tax on one-of-a-kind items. Also important to the city was the state's historic tax credits program, which paved the way for many of its mills to be redeveloped, he notes.
In his role, Weiss helped bring recognition for Pawtucket's arts-oriented development strategy to a wider audience. Articles about Pawtucket as an arts community have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor as well as local newspapers, and in a documentary called “Pawtucket Rising.” He has also been invited to other cities to speak about Pawtucket's art initiatives, including Rome, N.Y., Camden, N.J., Philadelphia, P.A., and Portland, M.E.
Weiss said he credits his first bosses, former Mayor James Doyle and former Planning Director Michael Cassidy, with giving him the freedom to handle his newly created role as economic and cultural affairs officer in the way he saw fit. “Creativity is important to me, and both of those individuals gave me room to be creative and enough rope to hang myself,” joked Weiss. “They allowed me to do different things and I became an advocate for artists.”
Now, under the Grebien administration, Weiss says he considers “the torch to be passed.” He looks forward to continuing to help grow and expand the arts community as well as filling the city's 70 or so empty mills with productive owners and tenants.
A native of Texas, Weiss has been a resident of Pawtucket's Oak Hill neighborhood for 18 years, where he lives with his wife, Patricia Zacks. He also is a prolific writer, having authored almost 500 articles on aging, health care, and Baby Boomer issues, and writes a weekly column for the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call on these topics.
In choosing Weiss for the award, Bob Billington, director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, said, “We seek out those people who are outstanding in the Blackstone Valley and in Rhode Island as a whole. A large part of the work we do at the Tourism Council relies on these people's strengths and the cumulative effect it has on the Blackstone Valley, and Herb is one of these people,” said Billington.
“He's ubiquitous, tireless, and his work brings value to the entire Blackstone Valley,” said Billington. “Sometimes, we get so used to seeing these great people and forget to say 'thanks.' Herb, particularly through his work with the arts, is directly related to tourism and we want to honor that.”
Mayor Donald Grebien said, “As a resident, taxpayer and mayor of Pawtucket, I'm truly excited that the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council is recognizing Herb for the Arts and Business Award. He is not your average city employee. Herb cares about this community and the people who he works for.”
Grebien added that Weiss “continues to be instrumental in creating Pawtucket's arts-oriented programs and development. He is deserving of this tribute and we shouldn't forget to recognize his wife, Pat, who is always there by his side as we continue to grow our city's arts and entertainment district which, in turn, spurs the small businesses in our community.”
Former Mayor James Doyle said Weiss, as much as anyone, should be credited for the city's reputation as an arts-friendly community. “Arts became a salvation, as far as Pawtucket was concerned,” said Doyle, noting that the success in attracting artists to the vacant mills helped breath new life into the city's economy.
Doyle noted that Weiss was there from the inception of the Pawtucket Arts Festival, when it was little more than a pizza party at the Pawtucket Library, and credits his efforts over the years help it expand.
“It was just Herb being Herb,” said Doyle. “The things he did, the contacts he made, the travels he went to, he was always espousing Pawtucket. And he'd always say to me, 'I just want to make you look good, mayor. That's the only reason I'm here.' I can hear him, saying that to me in my sleep.”
Michael Cassidy, who hired Weiss, said he is well deserving of the award, as well as the title of “Mr. Pawtucket.”
“All the effort and time he put in to bring arts and business to the city, including trying to help artists find uses for all of the mill buildings...being tenacious about people who he heard might have an interest in coming here...is what make him an asset to the city,” said Cassidy.
Tickets to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council's 28th Annual Meeting cost $59 per person or $550 for a table of 10, and can be obtained on-line at www.tourblackstone.com  or by calling the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council at 401-724-2200.