Mayor Elorza, nonprofit leaders launch innovation partnership

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The presidents of Brown University and Rhode Island College have agreed to serve as co-chairs of a new partnership between the city and its major nonprofit institutions designed to spur economic growth downtown and along the Woonasquatucket River through public-private partnerships, Mayor Jorge Elorza announced Monday.

In addition to Brown President Christina Paxson and RIC President Frank Sanchez, Elorza said top officials from Lifespan, Care New England, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Williams University and the University of Rhode Island will serve as members of the city’s Urban Innovation Partnership.

“I’m excited to be working side-by-side with all of the principals and all of the leaders that are here from these institutions because I know that we will leverage all that we can and all that we have to offer to, collectively, move Providence forward,” Elorza said during a press conference announcing the program at the WaterFire Arts Center on Valley Street.

Elorza said the city has also tapped the Cambridge-based Venture Café Foundation to assist in crafting and implementing a strategy for the partnership in Providence. The organization, which will be housed at the Wexford Innovation Center downtown, runs similar programs in Boston, Miami, St. Louis and Rotterdam.

Elorza said the partnership’s work will focus primarily on the Jewelry District downtown for businesses and entrepreneurs in the life sciences sector, and the Woonasquatucket River Corridor for those in the art, design, maker and food businesses. He said the partnership will also seek to position Providence as a “smart city,” a trendy, catch-all term for communities that embrace innovation.

Asked how much the city and its nonprofits are contributing toward the partnership, Elorza said the financial details have yet to be determined.

He said the city is paying the Venture Café Foundation $75,000 for its work, but acknowledged the partnership will eventually begin fundraising to support its programming. He has also assigned Jenn Steinfeld, the city's director of strategic partnerships, to oversee the program.

Elorza said he doesn’t expect the financial support from the major nonprofit institutions to cut into the $7 million in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes they make to the city each year, but he acknowledged they have other resources that can support the city. He said simply looking at what the nonprofits pay the city each year is a “fairly pedestrian” way of reviewing their contributions to Providence.

Paxson called the partnership “visionary,” but said it will focus on achievable outcomes. She said Providence is well-positioned to move from being an “exporter of great, talented people” to a city that can retain its brightest mind by supporting entrepreneurship and business growth.

“I think this is one of those cases where the vision is actually grounded in things that we know will work,” Paxson said.

Sanchez he believes the partnership will prove that the city and its institutions can work together to improve the economy.

“It brings a collective of thought leaders to think about the future of workforce development and ways to enhance the state’s economy,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( covers politics and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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