SETTING THE STANDARD: Phil Tirrell, owner of Weichert Realtors – Tirrell Realty in East Providence, also serves as chairman of the economic-development committee of the East Providence Area Chamber of Commerce. He sees an S&P debt upgrade for the city as having positive reverberations.
Standard & Poor’s recent upgrading of East Providence’s general-obligation debt rating from BB+ to A is giving some members of the local business community reason for optimism after struggling for years with the city’s building fiscal stress.
“It’s important because the recognition of the city’s improvement is from the national level,” said Laura McNamara, executive director of the East Providence Area Chamber of Commerce. “The upgrade from Standard & Poor’s is having a great impact on morale among business leaders.”
Starting in 2008, McNamara began noticing businesses in the city buckling under national and local financial pressures.
“By 2011, it was really shaky. Businesses were closing up,” said McNamara, who has led the Chamber for 16 years. “Membership in the Chamber kept dropping. I’d find out the Chamber members were going out of business, especially the ones with 10 or less employees.”
Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee in 2011 appointed Maj. Stephen M. Bannon of the state police as fiscal overseer for the city, which was weighed down with more than $10 million in debt as well as tens of millions of dollars in unfunded long-term liabilities. In December of that year, the state appointed a five-member budget commission to help the city achieve fiscal stability.
Standard & Poor’s earlier this month credited the commission for adopting stronger fiscal-management practices.
Many members of the city’s business community welcomed the commission as a necessary step toward improving the local business climate. The commission was dissolved last month following the state’s determination that the city’s fiscal health had improved.
Improvement in the business community, however, is still a slow process, McNamara said.
“I didn’t hear of anyone expanding in the last four or five years. It was more about just trying to keep operating on a daily basis – ‘I got through today, now let me get through tomorrow,’ ” said McNamara. “Now I think we’re on the upswing.
“I’m hoping that with this increase in the bond rating, it shows the city is being more responsible and it will bring more confidence to business owners so they will stay and expand,” she said, pointing to promising developments in the city that include Tockwotton On the Waterfront, a senior-living community that opened in January, the residential and retail Village on the Waterfront and a vision of creating a waterfront arts and culture district.