Back in the late 1970s when I was a student at Providence College, downtown Providence left much to be desired. Aside from regular trips to the Civic Center (now the Dunkin Donuts Center) to see a Friars basketball game or making the passage to the East Side and the bookstores and pubs around Brown University, there wasn’t much reason to venture downtown. But eventually, Providence embraced the arts and the whole tenor of the city’s downtown changed. Back in the 1990s I recall then city councilor Grady Mulligan and others traveling to Providence to learn about arts districts and artist live-work spaces, ideas that soon took root in Lowell. Midway through this past decade, with my son approaching college age, he and I made several trips to Providence, visiting the PC campus, catching some basketball at “the Dunk”, and just being very impressed with how well the city had remade itself.
According to this article in last Wednesday’s New York Times, economic planning in Providence seems to be pivoting in a new direction. The reason? “The city’s manufacturing base was waning and the luster of the city’s so-called Renaissance in the 1990s, which focused on the arts as a means of revitalizing, was losing steam.”
After a “grass roots” planning effort, Providence has chosen to focus on “meds and eds”, using the city’s hospitals and colleges as the foundation of a “knowledge-based” economy. A 360-acre site of underused factories and offices has been designated as the city’s Knowledge District in which Brown University has built its new medical school in a converted factory. Toy-maker Hasbro has relocated there “because the young talent it needed to attract to its gaming division preferred an attractive, urban environment.” To that last point, without the previous focus on the arts, Providence would not have the “attractive, urban environment” that would draw those employed by the knowledge economy.
Here in Lowell, with UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, the city’s hospitals and legacy of technological innovation, it would seem that following in the footsteps of Providence once again might be a wise path to take.