What Do We Need from Our Next Mayor?

What qualities our future mayor should have according to some of Providence's key players


There certainly seems to be no shortage of candidates, ready, willing and, hopefully, able to run for Angel Taveras’ soon to be vacated seat as mayor of Providence. Four Democrats, Lorne Adrain, Judge Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley and City Council President Michael Solomon have declared and are all actively campaigning. Dan Harrop has already announced on the Republican side. And of course there’s Buddy Cianci, clearly enjoying keeping us all guessing on his plans.

So far, each of the candidates is shoring up support, not to mention trying to raise money, within their core constituencies. But with the September 9 primary election date drawing closer, it is clear the time is fast approaching for a full-scale assault on the entire city. The first full forums have been held by the Providence Public Library and most neighborhood associations are planning open meetings or public debates for the candidates as well.

But what should we be looking for as we meet them? We’ve asked seven local leaders representing the arts, business and social action communities, representing a broad range of the city’s neighborhoods, to weigh in on what they think the new mayor needs to consider if he or she is to take on arguably one of the most difficult jobs in the state.

Here are their thoughts.

Clay Rockefeller, Co-founder of the Steel Yard and the Dean Hotel
“Every time we get into the political season, it feels crazy. This year feels even more insane. Basically, I wish people ran for mayor as a team, because ultimately I’m not looking for an individual. We put too much pressure on the mayor being one person, when we should examine who they surround themselves with. One of the questions I ask all candidates is, ‘Who are the top three people you turn to when you’re encountering adversity or need someone’s input?’ That is very telling.

There’s no limit to where creativity can take you, but for whatever reason, innovation is a more accepted term than creativity. At its root, though, innovation is driven by creativity. I would love to see a mayor encourage artists and creative thinkers to be engaged in all levels of the City government.

And we need a comprehensive vision, even if it’s all a bunch of parts that make up a big picture. I need something to believe in. I want to get excited. What makes our city unique and fun to be in? Creativity."

Michael Riley, Managing Member of Coastal Management Group
“Financial stability and accountability starts with the mayor. Providence needs a mayor who can deal strongly with the harsh financial realities that face the city. This means we need a confident and competent leader. Providence has real potential, but it has put itself in a financial bind and recent incremental measures actually will stunt a Providence revival. Leadership means taking the problem of pensions and OPEB head on.

The next mayor must address taxes by implementing new taxes that will most likely hit the wealthy and property holders. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a wealth tax or wealth surcharge applied to homes and properties worth $1 million or more. Also a city tax for all rental residents. This should be combined with employee wage freezes, plus significant renegotiating of municipal, police and fire benefits, in addition to cutting services and selling assets. I want the next mayor to pledge that he will do whatever it takes to end the $2.5 to $3 billion in debt that hides off the balance sheet. This can only happen by reducing benefits, ending defined benefit plans and increasing taxes on the citizens who by their votes have allowed this crisis to develop.”

Cheryl Simmons, Criminal Listserv Manager of College Hill Neighborhood Association
“I think Providence needs a mayor who can stand up to unions, be transparent about the financial state of the city so the constraints are clear and have an agenda which revitalizes our economy by building on our strengths (vs trying to become a mini Boston).

Hopefully, the next mayor will allocate more resources to the Providence Police Department. I realize that there are many competing needs for city funding, but the crime increases of the past few years will eventually erode the city’s tax base as many people in the higher tax rate areas (such as the East Side) leave the city for safer areas.

The current state of the city’s finances has been long in the making and is probably impossible to turn around quickly. But if the severity of the problem is laid out more openly and dealt with directly, true (vs. cosmetic) change can begin. And of course, I want the next mayor to reduce crime and make it safer.”

Frank Shea, Executive Director of Olneyville Housing Corporation
“Providence needs someone who views the city as a whole and who understands how healthy neighborhoods, healthy neighborhood business districts like Olneyville Square, Broad Street and Hope Street, and a healthy downtown are not exclusive of one another. They are all necessary if we are to have a healthy Providence.

These neighborhood centers create a walkable and livable community and are a hub for neighborhood vitality. And with this, we need a mayor who understands small business and works to create an infrastructure that supports the small and local entrepreneurial businesses that make up these hubs.

If you own or want to start a business in Providence, the city needs to make it very easy to maneuver through regulatory or assistance programs. That is what is needed to stabilize our tax base and provide opportunities and a path forward for everyone in the city.”

Cliff Wood, Executive Director of Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy
“Providence needs a mayor that understands how to build partnerships with the community, with businesses, with the state, with other cities and towns, etcetera, to create new models for providing city services. The world is changing and many of the older ways of providing services do not work anymore.

For the I-195 development, the mayor needs to know that the land won’t necessarily be developed overnight. In order for the best developments to be attracted to Providence, we need a system that makes development predictable and easily understood.

The mayor also needs to identify the issues that will make Providence competitive with other cities, bigger and smaller, over the next several decades. What are the things that attract business? What are the things that attract and retain young people? What are the things that retain families in the city? It’s functioning schools, public safety, infrastructure, good, safe parks and public spaces, good public transit and safe corridors for biking and walking.”

Joseph R. Paolino, Jr, Partner-Owner of Paolino Properties
First, the next mayor has to have a forensic audit of the current finances and pensions, and to work to make sure that we never have to face another $110 million deficit like the one Mayor Taveras had to face. Second, he/she has to put us on a strong plan for snowplowing and potholes. Third, the next mayor has to have vision, be bold and think outside the box, while understanding the basics of running the capital city, providing leadership on a higher level and understanding the issues. He must be the strongest advocate for economic development, with a vision for our future.

I would also like to see the newly available waterfront developed. That development must include two of our major resources, the universities and the hospitals. This land left vacant by the relocation of I-195 is priceless and it can be our ticket to a world-class city, if developed fairly, wisely and if we truly work with all developers. This is the key to that success.”

Ray Watson, Executive Director, Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association
“In my opinion, employment opportunities for Providence residents have to be a top priority for our new mayor. Fortunately there is a current ordinance enacted in Providence titled the First Source Ordinance, that if applied more effectively, can do much to address this issue. It mandates that any businesses receiving tax breaks or support from the City of Providence has to hire residents of the City of Providence. If the new mayor would just concentrate on enforcing this ordinance, it could produce an immediate and tremendously positive impact on our city.

Another major goal for the new mayor should be to better fund and support empowerment and development opportunities for Providence youth. By engaging our young people with positive ways to express themselves, you can mitigate against their becoming involved in less productive and potentially criminal behavior that will cost us all more in the long run.

And finally, specifically here in Mt. Hope, I’d like to see the new mayor support the grass roots community work going on in our neighborhood. Because we’re located on the East Side, it’s assumed our community receives all the support and resources we need. And while there are wonderful things happening at the Billy Taylor House, the Camp Street Community Ministries, the Everett Theatre and the Mount Hope Learning Center, there’s also so much more to be done. Hopefully the new mayor will help us continue our progress.”

Kari Lang, Executive Director, West Broadway Neighborhood Association
Here are some values that would be nice for Providence neighborhoods to see in the next mayor. First is the prioritization of preserving and enhancing our historic urban city. This would specifically entail things like demanding best practices in historic preservation and urban planning, incorporating green initiatives where possible and no more demolition.

Secondly we’d like to see better maintenance of existing city property. Thirdly, how about if the new mayor could commit to better enforcement of city laws in all departments which, by the way, would bring in more revenue for the City. Next it’d be nice to see support of economic development to help local businesses create thriving ‘Main Streets’ in every neighborhood. And finally, most obviously, strong local schools in every community.

One initiative we’re currently advocating is for the City to allow neighborhood organizations full legal status at zoning hearings so as to express community values, which would replace current rules that limit such status to only property owners within 200 feet of a proposed zoning change.”

Final Word
Please note, these answers have been cut and condensed from their original forms. (Some ran for pages.) Although each interviewee focused on a different sector of Providence, certain trends could be seen running throughout all of their answers. For example, in the original text, the following words appeared most frequently:

• “Art” appeared 21 times
• “Vision,” 18 times
• “Bus,” 17 times
• “Business,” 15 times
• “Tax,” 12 times

Way down at the bottom of this list were such words as “hope” and “quickly” and “celebration,” each mentioned only twice. Clearly, Providence’s leaders know what they want, but they have little expectation of achieving it quickly. But, as our state flag notes, there’s always hope in Rhode Island