Jorge O. Elorza
Jorge O. Elorza
Mayor of Providence, RI
The strength of a society is a function of how equally its members share in its growth and progress. In a time when people throughout the country feel as though they are being left behind, Providence has invested in a full cradle-to-career approach to help all of our residents reach middle class by middle age. There is no single intervention that is either necessary or sufficient. Instead, what makes the difference is two fundamental beliefs: first, the understanding that a comprehensive infrastructure of support is required in this work, and second, that the community itself must be involved in designing the system.
The City is taking a holistic approach to our economic revitalization process by hosting hundreds of community conversations across the City to help inform decisions around major projects. After hearing from our residents, we’ve prioritized investing in innovative educational programming to address historic inequities; creating dynamic workforce programs more suitable for an inclusive new economy; and leveraging our inherent strengths to produce more sustainable growth.
One of our City’s greatest strengths is our diversity – nearly 60 percent of our public-school students come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken. Combined, students and their families speak 31 different languages and hail from 52 countries of origin. As mayor, one of my priorities has been to invest in innovative cradle-to-career programming to give all our students a competitive advantage in their education and eventually, in their future careers.
The City has hired school culture coordinators for all middle schools who will serve as role models and provide support to students. To answer calls for better facilities, the Administration also announced a plan to invest up to $400 million in school infrastructure throughout the next 10 years. A yearlong public visioning process for school repairs, in which hundreds have already participated, was launched for a five-year plan that will later be submitted to the State.
Here in Providence, only one out of three kindergarten registrants enter the classroom at the appropriate literary benchmark. Through Providence Talks, a nationally recognized program that aims to close the 30 million-word gap that separates children who grow up in less affluent homes from their peers who are raised in middle- and high-income households, we are working to ensure that every child enters kindergarten ready to succeed.
By providing free or low-cost innovative programming and initiatives, we are making sure that students will continue to build upon the strides they make all school year long. Our Eat, Play, Learn summer initiative ensures that our youth are spending their summers participating in outdoor, educational and thoughtful programming. Last year, we served over 188,000 free summer meals and distributed 15,000 summer reading passports where students could track their reading progress.
Providing students with tools and resources needed to succeed in the 21st century is also among the highest priorities. That’s why we’ve set an ambitious goal of providing every Providence student with access to a tablet, laptop or computer in the classroom by the end of this summer. To close the digital divide, the City launched a partnership with Sprint, which has committed to providing 600 kids from all ten high schools with free 24/7 access to high speed internet throughout their high school careers.
We’re also helping adults adapt their skills to the changing demands of our economy. With the launch of the Office of Economic Opportunity in July 2017, the City undertook critical work to provide training, support and resources to residents, particularly those unemployed or underemployed, to connect them to employment or prepare them to launch their own business. The City also supported Amos House’s A Hand Up program, which has offered over 350 people experiencing homelessness daily work opportunities.
Through the Providence Business Loan Fund (PBLF), we’re helping existing businesses launch, scale and innovate, promoting economic dynamism and productivity. Under my administration, the PBLF has been restructured and rebranded and now has a board knowledgeable in lending practices with upgraded loan underwriting and record-keeping standards. Over the last three years, the PBLF has issued nearly $2 million in loans to help local businesses expand and create new employment opportunities.
As the City is working to couple students, residents and entrepreneurs with better opportunities, we must also improve connectivity between our world-renowned public and private organizations to create new prospects for collaboration. Providence is an educational powerhouse – we are home to eight colleges and universities including Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and the culinary arts institute Johnson & Wales University. In addition to these assets, we also possess eminent healthcare and cultural institutions.
The City of Providence is teaming up with these institutions to expand employment opportunities and reinvent our Downtown. Partnering with Brown University, the University of Rhode Island College of Nursing and Rhode Island College and the state, the City could redevelop a century-old power station – one of its most iconic and beautiful buildings – to produce one of Providence’s greatest historic preservation success stories. This project is a perfect example of what is possible when the private sector joins with ‘Anchor Institutions’ to make something meaningful happen.
Preserving and reusing our historic former industrial spaces is creating new energy in our Downtown Jewelry District, catalyzing development in the I-195 land, and promoting the new knowledge and innovation-based economy. When I-195 was relocated and 20 acres of Downtown land was suddenly made available for redevelopment, we were able to capitalize on this momentum to attract the interest of distinguished organizations such as Wexford Science & Technology and Cambridge Innovation Center.
Providence is utilizing our inherent strengths and new tools to leverage rapid growth in ‘New Economy’ sectors such as food and biotechnology. In addition to having some of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in the country, Providence is growing as a food hub. As consumers are increasingly focused on healthier, locally-sourced and sustainably-produced foods, Providence is strategically positioned to take advantage of this economic trend. Food production, processing and other commercial industries can provide light manufacturing jobs to Providence residents as locally-sourced foods become more popular.
Take, for instance, the case of Farm Fresh RI – Farm Fresh began in 2004 as a student project at Brown University to develop a direct connection between local farmers and residents. The nonprofit now operates 11 farmers markets, coordinates the distribution of more than $2.2 million in locally-grown food to more than 80 vendors and 200 customers annually and operates two Harvest Kitchen programs that have trained more than 300 young people who were directed into the job-training program through the state’s juvenile justice system.
This model represents a paradigm shift in the way that we think about – and support businesses. Farm Fresh was recently awarded an $850,000 loan through the PBLF to relocate from Pawtucket to a 60,000-square-foot building it plans to construct on 3.2 acres in our Valley neighborhood. An attractive factor of the national trend is that when investments are made in local food, those dollars are reinvested in creating jobs and spurring the local economy. That’s why it’s particularly a growth area that we want to emphasize.
In Providence, we’re preparing our talent and organizing our assets to produce long-term sustainable growth that is both inclusive and equitable. By making long-term investments in our schools and students, we’re inspiring the next generation to learn and empowering them to succeed. Through innovative workforce development programs and public-private partnerships, we’re catalyzing economic growth and attracting significant investments while creating sustainable employment opportunities for all of our residents.