Innovation Ecosystem

Mayor Elorza talks about his vision for the future of Providence

Innovation will continue to play a key part of the mayor’s second-term agenda

Photo courtesy of Mayor Elorza's Facebook post

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, state Sen. Gayle Goldin, and newly elected state Rep. Rebecca Kislak on election day.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/12/18
An in-depth interview with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza explores the future vision for the city of Providence, the role of innovation, and the need to monetize the city’s water supply to deal with the liability of the unfunded pension system.
How does becoming a new parent change priorities in the workplace? Will a consensus emerge around monetizing the Providence water supply as a way of fending off the financial liability of the city’s unfunded pension system? What kinds of environmental protections need to be built into the legislative wording to ensure clean water security around monetizing the water supply? When will the announcement be made about the $20 million investment in new Innovation Campuses be made?
At one of those frequent points of collision and convergence, a coffee shop, ConvergenceRI ran into Mark Huang, the former economic development director for Providence, who is now the co-founder and managing director of Sea Ahead, focused on bluetech innovation, with an emphasis on oceans, innovations and sustainability.
More than a year ago, ConvergenceRI had encountered Huang as he rode away on his bicycle after the groundbreaking ceremony for the Wexford Innovation Complex.
Huang, who was accompanied by his four-year-old son, talked about sustainability within the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island and sometimes the unrealistic expectations that accompany investments in the innovation economy around job creation. Stay tuned.

PROVIDENCE – The convincing win by Mayor Jorge Elorza in his successful campaign to be elected for a second term, despite the aggressive negative campaign run by independent candidate Dee Dee Witman, has put the focus on what happens next for Providence in the coming four years.

[It turned out that the residents of Providence did indeed know – and have confidence in – Elorza.]

While there remain severe structural problems in terms of city finances, with an unfunded pension liability, concerns about crumbling school infrastructure, questions about gun violence, as well as a growing crisis in affordable housing, Elorza has promoted an inclusive, positive vision for the future of Providence, focused in large part on the promotion of “innovation” – in government, in economic development, and in quality of life.

[Perhaps part of that positive vision reflects the fact that Elorza and his fiancé, Stephanie Gonzalez, recently gave birth in July to their first child, Omar Ernesto Elorza Gonzalez.]

There remain many rivers to cross when it comes to Providence’s future, sometimes resembling a constant whack-a-mole game: as soon as one political problem appears to be solved, another pops up.

In the days following Elorza’s re-election, a tentative contract settlement was announced with the teacher’s union, following a long-standing dispute.

At the same time, the city council’s Committee on Ordinances approved the rezoning for the proposed controversial Fane Tower to allow for it to be built, despite concerns about its height, pending a decision by the full Providence City Council.

The new incoming Providence City Council will soon have a majority of elected women councilors, led by a new President, Sabina Matos, beginning on Jan. 7, 2019. Yet it will be the outgoing City Council that appears to be fast-tracking a zoning decision on the proposed Fane Tower. Elorza has not yet made clear what his position would be.

ConvergenceRI spoke at length with Mayor Elorza by telephone on Friday morning, Nov. 9, to get a better understanding of his vision for the future of Providence and how he defined the innovation process on the road to get there.

“I believe that Providence can and should be the top mid-sized city in the United States,” he said. “We need a city that supports its kids so that every child is on track to being at least middle-class by middle age.”

The key to making those future investments and stabilizing the city’s finances, Elorza believes, will be to monetize the city’s water supplies. If we do nothing, Elorza continued, “The city will indeed die a slow and painful death that could lead us back onto the brink of bankruptcy.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, with his son, Omar, often contributing some key vocalizations as part of the conversation.

ConvergenceRI: What is your vision for the future of Providence?
Richard, that’s a really broad question. I believe that Providence can and should be the top mid-size city in the United States. We have all the ingredients to make it happen.

It’s a matter of bringing it all together. There are so many different components to that. We need [the city] to be financially stable and fiscally strong. We need a city that is investing in itself and thinking about the long term.

We need a city that supports its kids so that every child is on track to being at least middle-class by middle age.

We need a city that invests in quality of life, so that neighbors feel proud to call Providence home.

And lastly, we need a city that works, meaning that if anyone has a concern, or anyone has an issue at City Hall, we are responsive and as efficient [as possible] in taking care of that concern.

I feel so good about the progress we’ve made over the past several years. But, by no means, am I satisfied.

We’ve done a lot, but there is so much more left to do.

I’m really exciting to have that [vision] reaffirmed by the voters a couple of days ago.

It has filled me with more energy to continue working [toward those goals] these next four years, so that Providence will indeed become the top mid-sized city in the country.

[As if right on cue, the Mayor’s four-month old son, Omar Ernesto Elorza Gonzalez, vocalized his support, which sounded a bit like “right on.”]

ConvergenceRI: What is your definition of innovation?
There are different components to innovation: innovation in city government, and innovation in terms of economic development. I see that as having two separate branches.

The first one is innovation in the sense of you have got to try new and different things. You have to be very forward thinking, for example.

We’re doing things such as launching our Urban Innovation project, in partnership with all of the universities and hospitals.

We’re doing things like Jump bicycles and being receptive and open to scooters.

We’re doing things such as revitalizing the Woonasquatucket River corridor to be the Providence River Walk. There’s innovation in that sense.

We also need to make sure that every employee, every day is about coming in to work and thinking to themselves, how can I do my job better?

That kind of innovation, from the ground up, is just as powerful as the other kind of innovation.

We’ve done things, such as condensing our licensing forms from 40 pages to just three pages.

Now, for the first time in our history, you can renew your license or permit online with your credit card, rather than having to shut down your business go to City Hall, waiting in line. In the past, it was an experience that typically took hours; now it takes 10 minutes [and can be done] in the comfort of your home, on your phone.

The bottom-up innovation, we prioritize that just as much as anything else.

Lastly, there is innovation in economic development, which we also encourage and support in many different ways.

If we want to have a thriving, knowledge-based, tech-based economy, what we need to do is to invest in our institutional assets; we have the universities and hospitals that are coming to the table.

We have to invest in our physical assets; we are very blessed that we have great spaces and beautiful architecture. But the secret sauce is investing in network assets – how tightly linked are the connections between people with incredible and innovative ideas?

A lot of that investment has to do with programming, a lot of that is with place making, a lot of that is with making institutional investments.

We want to make sure that we are continuing to support things such as denser residential development: density where people are running into each other, almost randomly, with ideas recombining to form something even greater.

That’s the kind of innovation that is economic development; it is investing in things such as the Venture Café [as part of the Wexford Innovation Complex] coming in to do programming, bringing entrepreneurs together.

It is Providence Code Night with the mayor; it’s hackathons; it’s PVD Fest; it’s all of the things that bring people together and make sure there is a connection between us, building up that connective tissue.

That is how we nurture the networks of the innovation economy.

ConvergenceRI: How does the Sankofa Initiative fit into that vision of innovation, connecting affordable housing with an urban growing space and a sense of community?
I think Sankofa is a great example; it ties into making sure the connective tissue between really smart, talented and forward-thinking people is as strong as it can be.

We’ve been very much involved with what West Elmwood Housing has been doing, and with folks such as Julius Kolawole [president of the African Alliance of Rhode Island] as part of the Lots of Hope program. What we do is to provide funding, to support programs that bring people together.

What I like so much about urban farming is that it brings together, for example, immigrants that may feel disconnected because of reasons related to culture and language. It is amazing; I have seen 60- and 70-year-old African immigrants working side by side with young Asian boys and girls around farming, people who might otherwise feel powerless and voiceless, and now they feel empowered, because they are passing on a skill set to the next generation. That’s community building.

ConvergenceRI: How does affordable housing fit into the vision of innovation? Can you talk about the importance of preserving the existing neighborhoods and the residents living there?
We’ve invested millions of dollars in affordable housing over the past couple of years, while at the same time, we’ve been part of an effort to rehab more than 400 abandoned properties that have now been brought back to life.

Part of the challenge of affordability is that there is very little supply for the high demand that we have in housing, and pushes prices up.

On the other hand, if you’re creating new housing opportunities, even if they are not quote-unquote “affordable,” that provides more supply for the market, which drives down prices, at least preventing prices from spiking upward sharply.

So, every single new housing unit matters. It helps to alleviate the housing challenges. With that said, it’s not enough, and we need to proactively create new affordable housing units.

There are people who are living in our community right now who are indeed being priced out, and so we need to invest in making sure that affordable housing exists.

We’ve done that as part the great West Elmwood project on Dexter Street. What I like about West Elmwood, they don’t just create housing, they create a community; they know how to bring people together so that they feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

We have supported major affordable housing developments in the city, such as Barbara Jordan II on the upper South Side, with 27 contiguous buildings that are going create about 80-90 affordable housing units.

And, 60 King Street in Olneyville, that’s 60 units of affordable housing.

And, we have another project over in the Manton neighborhood, Maplewood, a SWAP project, with 40 affordable units.

All of this counts, because if we are creating the best mid-sized city in the country, the word is going to get around and more people are going to want to live here, and that’s going to lead to more housing pressure.

In developing the Urban Innovation Partnership and the Innovation Corridor along the Woonasquatucket, what we have proactively put on the table is that we want the kind of development that existing residents can benefit from – and not be displaced. That is an intentional part of the conversation moving forward.

ConvergenceRI: Have you been briefed about the status of the investment in the new Innovation Campus, in partnership with IRI, and the potential location of one such campus in Providence?
We’re hopeful that one will be placed in Providence; it makes so much sense. Because so much of innovation relies on density of people, you get a vibrancy that attracts more energy, as random [ideas] collide. That’s where the magic happens.

ConvergenceRI: Where does the concept of health equity zones fit into this whole process of innovation?
They are overlaid in all the work we do in the city. We recognize that you can’t have stronger, more vibrant communities if they aren’t healthy and don’t have access to basic tools to live healthy lives.

We know that we can’t have our kids on track to become middle class by middle age it they aren’t getting the nutrition in early childhood and beyond.

It used to be the case that the city of Providence would offer about 3,000 hot meals a year to kids in our recreation centers; that was before we took office. This past year, we increased the number of hot meals from 3,000 to 120,000 in our recreation centers.

We have also greatly expanded the summer meals program during the summer.

We have also been very strategic in our schools. We know, for a fact, that many kids don’t get their three square meals of food a day, particularly during the weekends, so we have a backpack program where we discreetly send home a weekend’s worth of food for many of our kids when they leave on Friday.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of quality of life issues, I know that you’ve been a proponent of potentially seeking to monetize the Providence water system.
Monetizing it. Selling it is off the table. We would likely lease out the management and operations rights.

ConvergenceRI: How does that fit in with preserving the quality of the water, in terms of safe drinking water?
[the mayor’s communications coordinator, interrupting] You said you wanted to talk about innovation.

ConvergenceRI: It is about innovation, if you are talking about monetizing the water system. I think it also has to do with environmental concerns and how they become part of the equation.
I’m happy to talk about it. There are three principles moving forward. First of all, we’re going to limit the impact on rates; there can be no compromising on the quality of water; and privatization is off the table, there has to be some kind of public oversight.

These three principles are embedded deeply in the plan that we put forward. The reason why it is important to do this is because if we do nothing, the city is going to die a slow and painful death.

All of the programs and initiatives that we want to invest in around innovation, around sustainability, around anything else, those monies are going to disappear, they are going to dry up, because they will be squeezed out by the increase in pensions.

So, we have to do something. Frankly, there is really no other option. There is not other real alternative to help us tackle the scale of the challenge that we have the unfunded pension liability.

That is what we have proposed. In the coming weeks we will be ginning up a number of community conversations specifically about this. I know that folks are very concerned and that they have questions. And, we want to engage with the community, not only about the stage of the city’s long-term finances, but the details of what we’re proposing.

If we do nothing, the city will indeed die a slow and painful death that could lead us back onto the brink of bankruptcy.

And, if we ever find ourselves in bankruptcy court, the first thing that our bankruptcy judge will look to do is to sell our water system.

And they will sell the water on their terms, not on the terms we’ve put together.

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