McKee administration, Providence commit $600K for WaterFire amid funding concerns

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State and city leaders committed a combined $600,000 to support WaterFire Providence on Monday, following a flurry of outrage over the weekend that the iconic downtown art installation might be in jeopardy.

Gov. Dan McKee and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor announced at a meeting Monday of the R.I. Commerce board that $150,000 would be provided through a discretionary fund, with another $150,000 provided from the Commerce Department’s budget if approved by the board.

Matt Sheaff, the state’s acting chief marketing officer, said the discretionary fund is the state’s tourism marketing budget, which receives a share of the hotel tax.

There is already a separate $375,000 budget line item for WaterFire in the state budget that passed the House last week.

“We’ve been really focused on reopening Providence,” McKee said.

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said conversations with the leaders of WaterFire and the City Council took place throughout the weekend.

“WaterFire is essential to the local economy,” Pryor said.

A short time later, Providence City Council leaders also reversed course and pledged to provide $300,000 in federal relief dollars for WaterFire.

Concerns about the viability of this year’s WaterFire lightings on the Providence River grew in earnest over the last several days, after the City Council Finance Committee on Thursday rejected a request to immediately grant the organization $300,000 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, allocation.

Mayor Jorge Elorza had requested the money be included in a $42 million allocation of the ARPA funds that cleared the committee Thursday night. But councilors declined to include new funding for WaterFire after City Treasurer Jim Lombardi said it could be “overly generous,” and suggested the state should step in to provide more funds.

But on Monday evening council leaders said the ARPA ordinance would be amended to include the $300,000 request.

“After extensive conversations with Barnaby Evans of WaterFire and other stakeholders, the council is pleased to announce the use of $300,000 in ARPA funding to allow the organization to once again light up downtown beginning in September,” said Providence City Council President John Igliozzi.

“We have heard loud and clear that we need to help spark Providence’s tourism and hospitality sector, and the relighting of WaterFire’s braziers will do just that, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to enjoy a beautiful evening outside, stay at our hotels, and dine at our world-class restaurants,” Igliozzi said.

Peter Mello, managing director of WaterFire, told the councilors last week that the organization had gone into debt during the pandemic after losing private sponsorships. Employees were furloughed, but the organization wants to bring them back this summer to reinstall infrastructure in the Providence River.

It will take up to two months to hire staff and reinstall the equipment, Mello told 12 News on Monday, which means early September is the soonest the first lighting could take place.

There are typically about 20 WaterFire lighting in a given season. Mello said the shortened season could have three or four lightings.

Mello said the organization had originally approached city and state leaders seeking $700,000, as corporate sponsorships have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels.

Just the installation and removal of the infrastructure from the river at the beginning and end of each season costs $750,000, Mello said.

“This money doesn’t necessary guarantee the future of WaterFire,” Mello said.

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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