Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said Monday that the proposed development of a life sciences hub on the edge of downtown is critical to the growth of the state and city economy.
The pair took a walking tour of the so-called Knowledge District, a 19-acre parcel of land freed up from the relocation of Interstate 195, whose old industrial buildings – once an epicenter of jewelry manufacturing – are being transformed into lab space and research facilities.
“This is critical to the growth of the economy, taking your assets and making them work,” Chafee said while visiting the old Speidel building on Ship Street, which used to produce watchbands but is now a basic research facility owned by Brown University. “It’s economic growth, and the answer to all our challenges is economic growth.”
State and city officials say the goal of the Knowledge District is to create the kind of high-skilled, high-wage jobs that have been lacking in Rhode Island’s distressed economy. The state has the third highest jobless rate in the nation.
Brown purchased multiple buildings in the old Jewelry District in recent years, expanding its presence from College Hill and becoming an anchor in the new district. Its neighbors include Lifespan Corp., the state’s largest health system; a research center of Women Infants Hospital; and several for-profit companies, including the DNA-sequencing start-up NABsys.
The firm, which joined the district in 2010, has already outgrown its space once; it now has about 30 employees, the vast majority of whom relocated to Rhode Island.
Chafee and Taveras were accompanied on the tour by representatives from the business and education communities as well as officials from the University of Maryland, which created a similar hub in Baltimore. The two visited that city recently to study how best to promote the same kind of redevelopment and job growth in Rhode Island.
“This is now the new economy – the ‘knowledge’ economy,” said Taveras, standing amid construction workers in another building that is slated to open in August as Brown’s new medical school.
The governor and mayor have not seen eye to eye on how decisions on the land’s redevelopment should be made. Chafee supports a strong seven-member redevelopment commission whose members would be appointed by him, with some input from Taveras. The Senate approved legislation creating that board this month; the House has yet to act.
But Taveras has indicated he feels such a commission would take away too much power from the city.
“It’s a question of how we collaborate,” Taveras said. “It’s important for the city, the state and the region. We’ll work together to find a way to get it done.”
Some groups, including Common Cause Rhode Island, have questioned whether there has been enough public input in the process.
One major issue is how the district’s development will benefit the bottom line of the city, which is facing a budget deficit of $110 million. Much of the expansion is being driven by non-profits – Chafee called them “meds and eds” – which are exempt from property tax.
“The challenge is to find a way to compensate for the loss of property tax,” he said.