Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 30

Ted Nesi
Nesi Notes saturday coffee iPad

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. After spending the last few weeks researching and thinking about Providence Place for Monday night’s special report, I came away with three broad takeaways. First, from the perspective of former Governor Almond aides like Joe Larisa Jr. and Kevin Hively, the mall worked: sales tax revenue covered the state’s mall debt, retail spending returned from Massachusetts, and Providence became more attractive to residents and tourists alike. Second, despite the challenges facing brick-and-mortar retail today, it’s too soon to write Providence Place’s obit: occupancy remains high, and it’s home to the only Apple Store between Hartford and Dedham. Third, there are nevertheless reasons for concern: upscale stores like Nordstrom and Crate & Barrel have closed, sales tax receipts are falling, and no shopping center is immune to the effects of e-commerce. So what will Providence Place’s next 20 years look like? Hively, who is now a sought-after economic development consultant, says it’s crucial to consider that the mall’s future may not look like its past. “There’s an important distinction taking place right now,” he told me. “There is ‘mall’ as retail and entertainment facility, and then there is ‘mall’ as a building structure, as just a physical form that sits there.” Hively points to other cities where malls have been partly or completely repurposed for everything from residences or museums to Amazon warehouses or parking garages. However it’s used, though, keeping Providence Place vibrant is crucial for Providence — especially with the city’s tallest skyscraper now sitting empty for a sixth straight year. “I don’t think what Providence wants to have is two signature landmark facilities that are dead weight,” Hively said. “That would be a really, really bad thing from an image perspective.”

2. One of the most interesting documents I uncovered while investigating Providence Place was a 2017 breakdown of sales data for its stores. As I mentioned in Monday’s story, the crash in sales at the Providence Nordstrom was even more dramatic than had been speculated: sales slumped by half between 2009 and 2017. Less surprisingly, Apple is a huge draw — it booked nearly $43 million in sales in Providence in 2017, up 16% from the prior year. By gross sales, Providence Place’s top businesses in 2017 were listed as Apple, Nordstrom ($19.5 million), Dave & Buster’s ($13.8 million), Cheesecake Factory ($9.6 million), Showcase Cinemas ($8.9 million), Victoria’s Secret ($7.5 million) and Zara ($7.4 million). (Sales data for Macy’s was not listed in the document.) Another way to look at the numbers: annual sales per square foot. Apple still comes out on top here ($5,008), but on that metric it’s followed by Piercing Pagoda ($3,884), Auntie Anne’s ($3,656), Starbucks ($3,065), T-Mobile ($3,004) and Lush ($2,570). However, the Providence Apple Store still brought in less revenue than the national average for an Apple Store ($5,546). And the Tiffany & Co. at Providence Place was an even bigger laggard, taking in just $884 per square foot, versus a national average of $2,951.

3. A question I’ve heard repeatedly while working on the Providence Place story: could the mall get built today in a post-38 Studios environment? Leaving aside that putting up a huge retail complex makes a lot less sense in the smartphone age than it did in the dial-up era, it’s still an intriguing question. The Projo’s Mark Patinkin had the same thought, drawing a direct comparison in his much talked-about front-page column Wednesday that lambasted Speaker Mattiello for driving the PawSox out of Rhode Island. Comparing Mattiello’s handling of the ballpark debate to Governor Almond’s handling of the mall, Patinkin wrote that the speaker “proved himself not an Almond-style visionary but a small-minded pol prone to pandering.” As Patinkin notes, while Mattiello often cited poll numbers that showed public opposition to a new PawSox stadium, two-thirds of the public was against Providence Place in 1995, too, but Almond went ahead anyway. That said, a top-shelf retail destination is a different animal from a minor-league stadium, and some on Twitter argued voters should similarly have been listened to when public opinion was against the mall deal.

4. Governor Raimondo and Mayor Grebien are making a big announcement Monday about Pawtucket.

5. Politico’s Steven Shepard is out with his 2020 elections forecast, and methinks you will not be stunned to hear he expects Democrats to win every federal race in Rhode Island and Massachusetts next year. To the extent the rankings reveal anything intriguing, it’s the fact Shepard sees our corner of New England as a slightly lighter tint of blue than other parts of the region. He rates Rhode Island as “Likely Democratic” in the presidential race rather than “Solid Democratic,” pointing to the 8-point drop in support for the Democratic ticket when it was headed by Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama. While it’s true a Republican hasn’t carried Rhode Island since 1984, Clinton’s showing was the weakest for a Democrat since her husband scored only 47% in 1992 against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Over the border, Bill Keating’s 9th Congressional District (from southern Fall River out to Cape Cod) is the only one of the Bay State’s nine U.S. House seats rated as “Likely Democratic” rather than “Solid Democratic.” But before Republican hopes get too high, it’s worth remembering that Clinton’s weak 2016 showing still gave her a 15-point win over Donald Trump, and Keating buried Peter Tedeschi by over 18 points last year.

6. Is Governor Raimondo planning staff changes? The State House thinks so, but her office says it has no announcements to make right now.

7. Amazon.com is releasing a movie featuring Senator Whitehouse this weekend — not the real Senator Whitehouse, though, but a fictional one portrayed by John Rothman. The film is “The Report,” starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, and it tells the story of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s mid-2000s battle with the Bush administration as it investigated the CIA torture program. Whitehouse, who saw the movie at a the Newseum in Washington during a premiere event, pronounced it “very good,” saying it “certainly brought back a lot of memories.” He said he hopes the film kills what he calls the “24” narrative — the idea that torture is a tough but necessary tool for the Jack Bauers of the world to keep the rest of us safe. “In point of fact this was a bad program,” Whitehouse said. “It was not effective. It was unprofessional. It did more harm than good. And it probably blocked more intelligence than it created.” Seeing himself portrayed on screen, though, was a weird experience. Did Whitehouse think the man portrayed by Rothman seemed like him? “It didn’t to me,” he said, “but I could see how they tried.”

8. The United States birth rate hit a record low in 2018, with just 11.6 births per 1,000 women, per the CDC. And nowhere are fewer babies being born than in New England, where the birth rate is even lower: Massachusetts and Rhode Island had about 10 births per 1,000 women in 2018, while last-place Vermont had just 8.7 per 1,000. That trend will have big demographic and economic consequences as time goes on.

9. The Great Recession has been over for 10 years, yet the Rhode Island Community Food Bank still hasn’t seen demand for its services return to the same level as before the financial crisis. And that worries Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff. “If there’s another recession coming up, we’re going to start at a much higher point — 53,000 people a month is way higher than we were before the recession in terms of the number of people we’re serving,” Schiff said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I think a lot of it does have to do with folks [being] at low-wage jobs, and the cost of living, particularly housing, is so high. People just can’t make it, pay all the bills, and afford the food they need to feed their families.”

10. Meghan Grady, who took over as executive director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island earlier this year, is also pondering how to keep up with increased demand. Her organization currently serves about 1,200 meals to seniors every weekday, funded by a mix of government and private funds. “But when we look forward into the future, we’re projecting that our population is only getting older,” Grady said on Newsmakers. “We’re looking at adding 100,000 seniors by 2030, and by 2040 one in four Rhode Islanders is going to be 65 or older. So I think that that really speaks to our growing need around senior nutrition and really making sure we have strategies in place to be able to meet this growing need.”

11. With Giving Monday around the corner, we asked Andrew Schiff and Meg Grady what Rhode Islanders can do to help their organizations — and both said they could use donations. You can contribute to the Food Bank here and to Meals on Wheels here.

12. Rhode Island, get ready to start saying “where exit 8 used to be.”

13. Christian McBurney picks the top 10 turning points in Rhode Island history.

14. Brown’s Gordon Wood on the New York Times’ “1619” Project.

15. How politics is becoming a battle of Boomers versus Millennials.

16. Bing Crosby died 42 years ago, but he’s out with a new Christmas album. (Sort of.)

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff and Meals on Wheels executiev director Meghan Grady; Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza discusses Providence Place. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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