Economic development front and center at Providence mayoral forum

Updated 9:25 a.m., June 8

PROVIDENCE MAYORAL CANDIDATES discussed housing, safety and business in a mayoral forum organized by the Providence Foundation and Downtown Improvement District. Pictured from left to right are candidates Nirva LaFortune, Gonzalo Cuervo and Brett Smiley, and Cliff Wood, executive director for The Providence Foundation. /SCREENSHOT

PROVIDENCE – From public safety fears to the housing crisis and the “brain drain” of college graduates leaving the capital city, nearly all the problems plaguing Providence share a single solution: economic development.

Indeed, the three city mayoral candidates returned to the topic of economic development when discussing a range of issues in a forum Monday night. While they differed in their individual suggestions for how to revitalize and grow Providence’s economy, they shared in common the emphasis on economic development to combat a host of ailments.

The forum was organized by The Providence Foundation and the Downtown Improvement District and featured the three candidates, all Democrats, in the race: Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Brett Smiley.

Economic activity attracts businesses to fill the void left by now-darkened downtown offices and developers to build the housing needed to hold on to college graduates and talented workers, candidates said. It brings tourism dollars and even the sight of people walking around puts public safety fears at ease.

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But how to get there?

Brett Smiley, who previously served as a top aide to former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, named more competitive commercial and tangible tax rates as one way to attract developers and reduce the need for controversial subsidies such as tax-stabilization agreements.

In moments like right now where we are hitting the [tax] levy cap, we should be looking at relief in some of the areas where we are not competitive,” Smiley said.

While Smiley still supported the tax deals as one of many tools to attract development, Cuervo labeled them a “crutch” that has failed in holding developers accountable to basic standards about wages and local investment.

Cuervo, the former deputy secretary of state and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, was also critical of the tax subsidies included in the redevelopment deal proposed for the “Superman” building anchoring downtown, although he said he supported the housing component of the project.

LaFortune, a city councilwoman, also had reservations about the “Superman” building, specifically the affordable housing component, which under the initially presented income requirements is not truly affordable for many city residents, she said.

As a higher education administrator, LaFortune also emphasized the need for the city’s economic development office to partner with colleges and universities on local careers for graduates as a means to combat the so-called “brain drain.” 

“Most universities have a post-college career program,” she said. “What I’ve heard is that they can’t get access to City Hall.” 

Cuervo again returned the issue to one of affordability, noting how rising costs of living, including a lack of housing, have pushed graduates out of the city and, in many cases, out of the state altogether.

Another source of city economic growth could be its deep-water channel and surrounding port, which Smiley said should be preserved for water-related uses, although he acknowledged the city could “do better than scrap yards and salt piles” when it came to the adjacent strip of industrial land along Allens Avenue.

LaFortune and Cuervo, however, both named a mixed-use redevelopment as one way to reimagine the port, while simultaneously meeting needs for housing and community space.

All three candidates named a combination of community policing and more behavioral and mental health services as ways to help alleviate fears of lack of safety in downtown. Also a point of agreement was the $515 million Providence pension obligation bond being put before voters in a referendum Tuesday, which each candidate said they would support.

The candidates will face off in the Sept. 13 primary, with the winner advancing to the Nov. 8 special election. Although no Republicans have filed to run as of Monday, candidates can  still do so before the June 29 deadline. 

(Update: This story has been updated to correct candidate Gonzalo Cuervo’s statement about the Superman building in the 9th.)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at 

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