John Kostrzewa: 3 projects that could make R.I.’s tiniest town really shine
A commuter rail station, a mill renovated into a recreational facility and a sprucing up of Broad Street, the main route linking Pawtucket, Central Falls and Cumberland.
I drove on I-95 through Rhode Island’s urban core last week to try to envision what policy makers are planning to attract jobs and economic activity in three struggling cities.
In Providence, you can see the possibilities for the former I-195 land, the crescent-shaped slice of vacant property that runs through the old Jewelry District. Governor Gina Raimondo wants to make it the heart of a new life-sciences and technology economy.
A few miles north in Pawtucket, Mayor Donald Grebien wants a new PawSox stadium on the Apex department store site, just off the highway. He sees it as a key piece of the development of the downtown and riverfront.
But after that, it’s harder to see the economic development potential in the third city, Central Falls. While there have been headlines about Raimondo’s use of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to develop the I-195 land, and a lot of interest in who will pay for a new ballpark for the PawSox in Pawtucket, you don’t hear much about efforts to rejuvenate Central Falls.
That’s because it’s out of sight, out of mind. So I got off the highway and took a look at Central Falls Mayor James Diossa’s three economic development priorities — the revitalization of Broad Street, The Landing mill redevelopment project and a proposed Commuter Rail Station. And I saw the potential.
“I think the Blackstone River Valley is the next hot opportunity,” Diossa said in an interview.
Ten years ago, the deterioration of Broad Street and fears of the loss of businesses sparked support for the regeneration of the 3.2-mile main route that links Pawtucket, Central Falls and Cumberland.
Planning started in 2007 with the help of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and a grant from the National Park Service to revitalize the businesses, homes, churches, schools, parks and government buildings along the 3.2-mile street.
The idea was to preserve the 19th-century structures and ethnic diversity that gives the street its distinctive cultural character. The plan included façade enhancements and pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.
But Rhode Island’s deep recession from 2007 to 2010 and the weak recovery that followed it stalled the plans.
Now, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and planners in Central Falls, Cumberland and Pawtucket reconvened to try a new coordinated approach, called the Broad Street Regeneration Initiative 2.0.
The coalition won a $35,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to hire a part-time coordinator, Jillian Finkle, to work with the three cities on the plans.
“The communities are working together on a regional, collaborative effort,” said Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. “That’s encouraging.”
Next year, the state Department of Transportation is slated to start design and engineering work on the reconstruction of Broad Street. The department has earmarked $11.5 million for the traffic and safety improvements.
Diossa said if all the plans come together, he envisions Broad Street as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with green spaces and sidewalk cafés that will attract in- and out-of-state visitors.
Central Falls has awarded a contract to Tai-O-Group to redevelop The Landing, an old mill site at the intersection of Broad Street and the Blackstone River near the Cumberland line, into a commercial center with public access to the river.
The plan includes remediation of environmental contaminants on the site, renovation of the historic mill into possible banquet and restaurant facilities and construction of a new commercial building at the corner of Broad and Madeira streets.
“We see it as a welcome center for Central Falls,” Diossa said. “It values the Blackstone River and it is significant.”
The completed site, Diossa suggests, could incorporate a restaurant, brewery and possibly the relocated offices of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. He said people would visit the location for access to the Blackstone River Bikeway and to enjoy canoes and boats on the river.
Commuter Rail Station
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is seeking bids for a developer to design and build a $40-million commuter rail station in Pawtucket that Diossa said would spur economic development and jobs in Pawtucket and Central Falls. The station, expected to open in 2020, would be a stop on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Providence line.
The project includes building two new tracks off the Northeast Corridor, two new platforms and a pedestrian bridge connecting the station to Pine Street and Barton Street.
Diossa said the rail stop would attract new residents and businesses and unlock 1 million square feet of vacant mill space in the two cities.
The money for the project comes from federal and state sources, $3 million in contributions from Pawtucket and Central Falls and $2 million from an anonymous donor, Diossa said.
All three projects have some momentum but they are far from done deals.
As there are with any economic development plan, there are huge challenges ahead. Central Falls is not a wealthy city, and it will take a commitment of public money followed by private investment to turn the plans into reality. And any downturn in the national and regional economies could set back the projects — again.
But it’s encouraging that at a time when cooperation among Rhode Island’s cities and towns is in short supply, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Cumberland have found common interests to push forward an economic agenda.
It’s also good to see cities taking advantage of the state’s strengths. It makes sense to focus on the Blackstone River Valley — one of Rhode Island’s great, unpolished assets that is really one corridor through several communities.
Mayor Diossa gets it. But he also needs to get Rhode Islanders off the highway to take a look at what’s going on and share his vision.
Central Falls can be a destination, not just a place people pass by.
— John Kostrzewa is the Journal’s assistant managing editor/business, commerce and consumer issues. Reach him at (401) 277-7330 or email [email protected]. Follow his posts on facebook.com/JohnKostrzewa or @JohnKostrzewa on Twitter.