The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and the Roger Williams University Community Partnership Center have teamed up with the goal of revitalizing and improving businesses in Providence and Woonsocket. The partnership, officially announced two weeks ago in a meeting between Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, the two city mayors and the president of the university, will bring together RWU students and small business owners on the main streets of both cities in order to help increase business and exposure.
In Providence, the efforts will be focused on the businesses along Broad Street in the Elmwood and South Providence neighborhoods. “Our small businesses are the backbone of our economy, providing jobs for residents, services and goods for the community and quality of life to our neighborhoods,” said Providence Mayor Angel Taveras during the meeting. “This program – the first of its kind in Rhode Island – will give students hands-on learning experience while supporting the hard work of these small businesses.”
The idea of the program is to help small business owners expand, while also providing RWU students with a chance to apply classroom knowledge in real-world situations.
Arnold Robinson, director of the Community Partnerships Center at RWU, said the partnership came about after the university heard that Chafee was meeting with a group from the EDC to support the main streets of Rhode Island. The CPC offered to help because “we do have a lot of areas that mesh really nicely with the strategic objectives that the state talked about,” Robinson said.
The first goal of the program is “to do real community good, which has been identified as a need,” he said. The second goal is “to increase the sort of breadth and depth of the educational experience that our students get,” he added.
“Every community is different, the needs are different and the courses that might engage in it have different methods of approaching that,” he said, noting the importance of adapting to individual scenarios.
Armeather Gibbs, managing director of urban finance and business development at the EDC, also stressed the focus on the listening to the people. “This partnership is being driven from the community level,” she said. “The community tells us, or tells Roger Williams, what their interest is.”
The participating students are mostly graduate students or junior and seniors, with basic coursework and internship experience already under their belt. The program will be integrated into their curriculum, such that each student will take courses geared specifically towards this project, rather than participating in it as an extracurricular. Examples of the courses taught are “Historic Preservation Planning,” “Small Business Institute” and “Crime Prevention.”
According to Gibbs, the RWU students will be working alongside the non-profit organization Stop Wasting Abandoned Property, Inc., which already has a city grant in Providence.
The program, which has already begun, is divided into three phases. The first phase is focused on identifying immediate projects that could move forward fairly quickly, according to Robinson. “The business school’s working, for instance, with the Stadium Theatre and the city (of Woonsocket) to expand the economic impacts of cultural and artistic events that take place downtown,” Robinson said.
The second phase, which is scheduled to begin in spring 2013, will involve “working with local communities to identify their goals for projects they want to do,” he said. CPC’s goal during this phase is to fit the needs of individual business owners with specific programs at RWU, making plans for the long-term.
Phase three will help to ensure the longevity of the program.
The nature of the partnership is not something “where we’re there for one class, we’re there for one semester, and then we go home,” Robinson said. Rather, the idea is to keep the program going for many years to come.
For the first year the EDC has agreed to fund Roger Williams with up to $54,000. This value was based on a preliminary budget, but could be changed if necessary
Chafee said it was important to take advantage of the institutions of higher education in the state. “By engaging our educational institutions, we can begin to more actively utilize the skills and expertise of the excellent educational institutions within Rhode Island and also tap into the bright minds of our students for the good of the state’s economy,” he said during the meeting. He also mentioned an interest in revitalizing Pawtucket, Central Falls and West Warwick, in addition to Providence and Woonsocket.
The pilot cities were carefully selected. “We went to the two communities where we could see a very strong fit with our program, and a very real need for us to help out,” Robinson said. Both Providence and Woonsocket already had “well-evolved plans” which worked out well with the university’s programs.
But there are possibilities for the program to expand in the near future. “Come next June, or maybe even before that, we’ll begin to look at other projects and other communities,” Gibbs said. “But we want to stay within the core communities, because that’s been the focus of Governor Chafee.” Similar partnerships could also potentially be made with other universities, Gibbs said.
Paul McGreevy, director of the department of business regulation, said the decision to team up with RWU has broad implications. “That’s an important piece in the larger strategy of improving the partnerships that EDC will have that can help in the economic development area.”