Here’s how Providence plans to spend $42 million of Biden relief money

Providence

A rendering of a proposed gateway into Roger Williams Park. Mayor Elorza proposed to spend $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to build the welcome center.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — City leaders have advanced a new plan to spend $42 million of federal relief funds on a slew of items including youth summer programming, homelessness interventions, a welcome center at Roger Williams Park and small business relief.

Providence is expecting to receive about $164 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed by a President Biden in March, and officials at City Hall say they intend to convene a task force this summer to help determine how to spend most of the money.

But before the task force has even convened, the City Council Finance Committee on Thursday night approved an ordinance to spend $42 million of the funds now. Mayor Jorge Elorza helped craft the ordinance.

Roughly $19 million of that amount is set aside to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic. The rest is earmarked to specific projects, including $4 million to build a new “gateway” to Roger Williams Park that would include a visitors’ center, bathrooms, bike share, a recreational plaza and green space.

The newly built “modern, green and energy efficient” welcome center would be constructed on a blighted property that formerly housed the El Fogon restaurant, which closed after a fire in 2006.

The total project cost is $6.6 million, according to city spokesperson Ben Smith, including $4 million from the ARPA funds, $1.6 million from the Providence Redevelopment Agency and $1 million from the Acquisition and Revitalization Program at Rhode Island Housing.

Elorza had initially proposed spending $33 million of the federal stimulus funds when he submitted his budget proposal to the council in April. But an amended version of the ordinance introduced and passed Thursday by the Finance Committee increased the amount of ARPA funding — which is in a separate ordinance from the main budget bill — to $42 million.

A public hearing was not held to receive input on the proposal in committee before passage. (However, a public hearing is scheduled for next week to get input on Elorza’s proposed city budget, as required by city charter.)

The Elorza administration argued some of the spending approved Thursday night involves a time constraint, since it will go towards programming for youth this summer including camps, summer jobs and a night basketball program.

Using $1 million in ARPA funds for summer jobs will allow the city to raise the minimum wage for teens to $15 an hour, Elorza policy chief Diana Perdomo told the councilors. (The mayor has separately proposed a $15 minimum wage for all city employees.)

Other investments for young people included in the bill are $1 million for youth and family broadband access, $1 million for early learning infrastructure, $1.1 million for a mentoring program, $500,000 for nonviolence training and $1 million for year-round youth jobs.

A breakdown of the proposal says mentoring can decrease chronic absenteeism in school and illegal drug use among young people.

In amending the plan on Thursday, councilors added a $7 million program for small business relief. Details on how that money will be allocated among businesses was not immediately released.

The ordinance also would provide $600,000 for public libraries, $500,000 for homelessness intervention, $187,339 for the Providence Center and $3 million for street sweeping and sewer repair.

“The American Rescue Plan grant budget, including the timely investments in youth, infrastructure, anti-violence initiatives and relief for small businesses in Providence reflect the priorities of the Administration, City Council and our community, and are critical to the ongoing recovery of our city,” said Ben Smith, Elorza’s press secretary.

“The city will also soon empanel a special commission on the stimulus relief funds in which community stakeholders can guide the allocation of ARPA funds to further invest in our community,” he said.

Elorza has also proposed allocating $300,000 in ARPA funds to WaterFire Providence to get the downtown arts installation back up and running after a pandemic hiatus, though that funding wasn’t included in the ordinance approved Thursday night.

WaterFire plans to return in September for a shortened season. State lawmakers have also allocated $375,000 to WaterFire in the state budget that passed the House Thursday night.

The organization plans to rehire furloughed staff this summer and reinstall infrastructure in the Providence River that was removed during a 2019 dredging project.

Peter Mello, managing director of WaterFire, said the organization has gone into debt during the pandemic due to losing many of its corporate sponsorship funds.

“Not only is this critical to putting on WaterFire this year, it’s critical to our long term sustainability as an organization,” Mello said of the ARPA money.

City Treasurer Jim Lombardi, who is also the council’s chief of staff, said providing more funds to WaterFire from the city might be “overly generous,” and suggested the state should step in to provide more funds if needed.

“This is the first of many ordinances that I believe the council is going to pass on this,” Lombardi noted.

Councilwoman Helen Anthony moved to add the WaterFire funding into the ordinance, but no committee member seconded the motion.

The amended version of the ARPA ordinance now goes to the full City Council.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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