At the Friday opening of a new Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Cranston’s shopping hub, Garden City Center, dozens of customers and community leaders sipped on “Bahama Mama” smoothies as a gubernatorial hopeful prepared to cut ribbon. Allan Fung, mayor of Cranston and the Republican nominee for R.I. governor, posed for photos with an enormous pair of golden scissors to celebrate the occasion.
The scissors can get to be like “butter knives” said Fung’s Executive Assistant Mark Schieldrop, because “we cut so many ribbons.”
Business is booming in Cranston, and some locals attribute the success to Fung, who became mayor in 2009.
Joe Koechel, general manager at the 70-year-old Garden City Center, said he has seen a big difference in Cranston over the last decade. In 2010, Garden City faced a large number of vacancies and outdated infrastructure, Koechel said. To revitalize the area, Fung worked with the community using a “can-do attitude,” he said.
“When I first got into office nine years ago, we made a commitment … to help a lot of the businesses, a lot of the developers, but also the small businesses that dot our landscape,” Fung told The Herald at the store opening.
Fung cited a concierge program as a major source of success in aiding businesses of all sizes. The program allows the city to work with businesses before they open doors to go over city requirements associated with opening a business, such as permits and licenses, he said.
Cranston recently surpassed Warwick as the second largest city in Rhode Island, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report.
“We have four ribbon cuttings this week alone,” said Stephen Boyle, president of the Cranston Chamber of Commerce. Though the chamber is a non-partisan group and cannot endorse candidates, Boyle said Fung has been “very supportive of the chamber and the events.”
As business booms, unemployment is at a low in the city, following national trends. Cranston’s August unemployment rate was 3.7 percent; when Mayor Fung took office in January 2009, the city’s unemployment rate was 10.8 percent, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. The dip in unemployment comes as Rhode Island’s overall unemployment reaches an all-time low of 4 percent, The Herald previously reported.
While more people are working in Rhode Island, they “don’t earn a lot,” said CEO of Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity Mike Stenhouse. The center looks at data across the state but has not done any specific work with Cranston, he said. But as a longtime resident of the city, Stenhouse said he has seen Fung build relationships with businesses and create a stable environment for them to thrive — though the mayor is not the only person who affects a city’s economy, he added.
“We do have to give Fung some credit,” Stenhouse said.
Wages have also increased in the last decade in Cranston, according to the Department of Labor and Training, which reported that the city’s average annual wages increased by $7,801 from 2009 to 2017.
This positive uptick in Cranston is not unique to the city — Warwick and Providence, among others, have seen wage rises at comparable rates.
Property taxes in Cranston have remained low while they have increased in other parts of the state. According to each cities’ tax assessor’s office, Cranston has the lowest commercial tax out of the state’s three biggest cities.
Some of Cranston’s business success can be attributed to forces outside of the state, Koechel said. Cranston is located near the Massachusetts border and right off of three major highways — attracting shoppers from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Jill Zajac, co-owner of the new Tropical Smoothie Cafe, hopes Cranston’s success will persist and continue to attract customers to her business.
“Come and try us,” she said, “We have food.”