Brett Smiley, Democratic candidate for Mayor of Providence, writes a guest column for Providence Business News.
As Providence works to rebuild and recover from the pandemic, we are faced with an almost unheard-of problem: What do we spend all this money on?
Thanks to the strong advocacy from Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Reps. David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin, our city and state have over $1 billion in federal aid intended to help us recover while also righting persistent inequalities. Gov. Daniel J. McKee and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, along with civic institutions such as the Rhode Island Foundation, have all spoken about community input on where these one-time dollars will be best spent.
Now is the time to come together to finally redevelop the Cranston Street Armory. This iconic landmark is the perfect project for this funding and has already gone through an extensive engagement process with the surrounding community in Providence’s West End. It is shovel-ready, has the support of neighbors, will directly benefit a hard-hit community, and it’s a fiscally responsible investment. We have talked about, planned, solicited proposals and otherwise day-dreamed about what to do with this building since its closure 30 years ago. Now, we finally have the funds. So let’s get it done.
Prior to the vacant structure and bustling neighborhood park we see today, this area has historically served our community in different ways. During the Civil War, these training grounds served as home to the 14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, the first African American company from Rhode Island to serve in the war. It has served as a training space for various regiments, battalions and brigades before becoming our former Providence Civic Center. Since then, it has made it to numerous “Most Endangered Property” lists by preservationists who still see its beauty and its potential.
The armory was declared unsafe by the state fire marshal in 1981. It has been mostly closed ever since. Over the years, there have been many pie-in-the-sky plans. However, a few years ago, the state and a group of community stakeholders restarted a public process that led to a viable, sustainable, competitively selected and community-supported proposal to turn this historic site into soccer fields, affordable office space for local businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and a new public space that connects the armory to the adjacent park. We are in the ninth inning of this process, and thanks to this federal aid, we could complete the process and get to work now. The redevelopment would create jobs immediately and invest in a neighborhood that was already struggling before the pandemic.
The process run by the state involved robust public engagement involving the neighbors who are impacted by this space the most. A diverse group of West End community stakeholders were leaders in the development of the request for proposals and in the selection of the winner. Further, these leaders will continue to hold the state and the developers accountable throughout the development process. Over the last three years, there were multiple public meetings with hundreds of participants. A transparent public procurement process has ensured competitive prices and a fair selection.
This project requires a one-time capital commitment to save this treasured building and turn it into a self-sustaining, productive part of our local economy. We know these federal dollars are a one-time allocation, and they should be matched with one-time expenses.
Rhode Island has seen treasured places turned into new community assets such as the conversion of Rocky Point into a new park. Let’s finally convert the iconic Cranston Street Armory into a healthy, vibrant, job-creating and community-building neighborhood space. We can get started right now.