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Data jump

Those who work in inner-city areas are used to focusing on what their communities don’t have. In Rhode Island, the LISC MetroEdge program is shining a light on what tremendous assets they do have—much to the surprise and delight of everyone from agency workers to business owners.

The Tandori Restaurant on Main Street in Woonsocket, one of the businesses that recently opened in the community.

In the West End, an inner-city neighborhood of Providence, and in Woonsocket, Rhode Island’s third largest city, LISC’s extensive assessment of the areas’ market potential upended commonly held beliefs about the buying potential of residents.

“This [data] has the information that I knew about but couldn’t explain,” said an ebullient Sharon Conard-Wells, executive director of the West End’s West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation. Documented information, she said, is power. “That’s what makes this so valuable.”

Rhode Island, Richmond, Va., and Phoenix were the launching pads for The Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program, an initiative of LISC MetroEdge that began in 2011. Seasoned consultants visit and assess Main Street areas, do extensive market research and then help devise and implement strategies to breathe new life into the business corridors.

The West End is a diverse neighborhood that has everything from Guatemalan bakeries to old-time family businesses to empty storefronts.

West End

The West End is a diverse inner-city neighborhood dotted with new Guatemalan bakeries, old-time family businesses and the busiest liquor store in the state.

But Cranston Street, its main commercial corridor, is also sprinkled with vacancies, and MetroEdge consultants were told about other problems, such as a lack of safety (more than 40 percent of its street lights are routinely out) and the street’s congestion and scarce parking.

Yet MetroEdge’s highly detailed study of the area’s market potential unveiled some welcome surprises.

The neighborhood, often dismissed as poor and dangerous, turns out to have a higher percentage of households earning a $50,000-plus income than Providence as a whole: More than 30 percent of residents report earning that much or more.

Additionally, the study showed that West End residents are armed with buying power of more than $140 million per square mile, yet only a third of those dollars are spent in the West End. Translation: plenty of opportunity to open businesses to capture that spending.

“This information will change the way people look” at the West End and its potential, said Carrie Zaslow, program officer in Rhode Island’s LISC office. “We always look at the need. This concentrates on the other side—the assets.”

Indeed, as the market data were being presented, state Sen. Juan Pichardo, whose district includes the West End, stopped by. When he saw the statistics, his eyebrows shot up. “Can I have a copy of these?” he asked. “This is information we haven’t seen before." 

And Conard-Wells said she was already planning to use the information to support soon-to-be-submitted grant requests.

The River Falls Restaurant is next to Woonsocket's Museum of Work and Culture, one of many cultural and entertainment resources in the city.

Woonsocket assets

Similar reactions were evoked by the market data compiled by LISC in Woonsocket, which is often regarded as the poor stepsister to Providence.

An old city proud of its French-Canadian roots, Woonsocket was famous for its textile mills until the industry moved south. Today its long and winding Main Street, while thriving on both ends, is in need of rejuvenation in the middle, where vacancies abound.

But LISC’s study revealed a potential that surprised local leaders, finding that almost 40 percent of households in the Woonsocket trade area are middle-income earners, bringing home a minimum of $50,000 a year: four times as many per square miles as in Rhode Island as a whole.

In addition, there are more than 800 households per square mile earning middle incomes and above in Woonsocket, compared with 200 per square mile in all of Rhode Island. In terms of consumer muscle, the study showed the trade area buying power is $65 million per square mile. 

Residents spend at least $50 million outside the city at general merchandise stores, and other categories where money could be captured within the city limits include clothing, electronics and appliances, furniture and home furnishings stores, and health and personal care stores.

MetroEdge found another great advantage: Woonsocket has cultural and entertainment resources that routinely lure a bevy of high-income folks from miles around into the city. The trick is to keep these visitors in Woonsocket once they’ve come to see a live show at the ornate Stadium Theater, tour the Museum of Work and Culture, or dine and party at the night spots on the south end of Main Street.

Another group with potential, the study pointed out, are employees of major institutions who drive through the city every day. Woonsocket is the national headquarters of CVS Pharmacy with 3,000 employees, for example, and the Landmark Medical Center employs another 1,000. 

Jan Reitsma, executive director of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, looked over the data in his National Park Service office in a beautifully restored train depot in the middle of Main Street. He was fascinated. “Who else has this information?” he asked. “How do we get it to everybody?”

Students at a youth arts program in Woonsocket.

Woonsocket’s next steps

As word spread about the results of LISC’s study, local leaders asked Rhode Island LISC’s Zaslow to do a larger power-point presentation to explain the data. One January morning, several dozen folks gathered in the city’s historic city hall to hear the news.

Questions were asked. Ideas bubbled up. How about a new website and map trumpeting the bike path and other things for visitors to do in Woonsocket? The French American Society has more than 1,000 members who come to town; how can they help? How can we deal with the safety issue around the bus station in the middle of Main Street? How do we engage some big local business owners who don’t often connect with the community?

One idea that many liked is a “storefront stroll,” which is a real estate open house. The vacant storefronts on Main Street would be spiffed up, and on one Saturday they would all be open for convenient viewing by potential business renters. But that would take some major coordination.

It’s clear that the energy level and commitment to Main Street is very high in the city, Zaslow said, and there are numerous resources available to individual businesses. But it was also clear that it’s no one’s natural role to lead a district-wide improvement effort.

Fortunately, Zaslow said, LISC was able to use the results of the commercial corridor study to win some federal Section 4 funds to hire a 20-hour-per week professional staff member.

In addition to the HUD money, Woonsocket was able to use the CORE market study to win a Main Street planning grant from the state. NeighborWorks, a community development organization, also used the data to successfully apply for a $400,000 federal grant for other Main Street improvements, including expanding the Museum of Work and Culture, adding some affordable housing and starting a microbusinesses program.

Zaslow said the hope is that this emphasis on Main Street will eventually be supported through the Main Street merchants. This kind of effort is difficult to get off the ground without any funds, she said; using the CORE findings to leverage financial assistance “really goes a long way.”

The old armory anchors the business strip on Center Street in West End.

West End plans

Meanwhile, in the West End of Providence, the market scan gave local advocates new tools to get improvements started.

“Retailers drive through this community, blink, see some vacancies, and drive off,’’ community members were told by Larisa Ortiz Pu-Folkes, an independent consultant in commercial district revitalization. “They choose not to invest. This is information you can use to show them the potential that is there, especially with all these upper-middle-income folks.”

To help jump-start new retail, the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation is going to use a prominent vacant retail location that it owns on Cranston Street for a “Teen Entrepreneur Bootcamp,” a pop-up retail concept where youth study how to open a business like a coffee shop and then run it for a short period of time.

The program simultaneously allows West Elmwood to teach kids about financial literacy, help advertise the available space, and show the street’s retail viability 

Improving public safety is the next step. Cranston Street is frequently used by Rhode Islanders on their way to and from jobs in downtown Providence, but unless they feel safe, they won’t stop to shop.

Already, LISC involvement has resulted in the award of a safety micro-grant to put videos security cameras on street hot-spots that merchants can monitor. The grant came from an unexpected source: a local hospital that wanted residents to feel safe enough on the street for healthy activities such as walking.

The camera project also turned up valuable information such as how many merchants need to update computer equipment to participate. More micro-grants are being sought.

Other plans are afoot: partnering with neighboring areas engaged in crime watch coordinated with the local police, doing ongoing street light surveys to alert the city to outages and press for action, and supporting community clean-ups. Community members would like to find ways to fund small physical improvement such as signs and awnings.

Like in Woonsocket, the ideas and plans are spilling forth. Armed with the new knowledge about their market, community members can envision new possibilities.

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Rhode Island

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