Building the Playground Without Evidence of Children


A pair of Zachary Malinowski articles recently published in the Providence Journal describe what sounds like the pitch for a light after-primetime drama: a group of twenty somethings bring the City of Central Falls back to life… and finds love along the way.

It’s got an interesting plot, but taxpayers should approach it with some  broader (and more financial) questions than just the compelling narrative that it creates.

[Stephen] Larrick, the city’s planning and economic development officer, enthusiastically embraces the challenges facing the state’s smallest city.

He has big plans for a major transit stop, riverfront development, an urban campground and creating a portion of the bike path that connects Providence to Worcester, Mass.

Larrick is 23 years old and recently graduated from Brown with an undergraduate degree in urban studies and political philosophy.  He joins the 27-year-old mayor James Diossa, 24-year-old City Council member Steven Corrales, and 37-year-old mayoral chief of staff Sonia Grace in what is in some regards a sort of sociology project. “I just started working on the projects that interested me,” Larrick told Malinowski.

Presumably, the hopes and dreams of the people who live in the city (or who heavily subsidize it through state aid) will naturally align with his interests.

Drawing in outside grants, ultimately funded through state and federal tax dollars, the plan consists of a train stop, some “gentrified” apartments in old mill buildings, a walkable main street area, “historic” bridge lighting, a bike-path connector, and a canoe-and-kayaking launch, potentially with “a craft brew pub” and a bike shop.  (By “potentially,” I mean in the vision of the planner, without implying that any investors have expressed interest.)

That last component is telling.  The building that would anchor the kayak launch and shops was sold to a developer by the corrupt, now-imprisoned former mayor Charles Moreau for $200,000.  Four years later, Rhode Island taxpayers, through the state Department of Environmental Management, bought it back for $293,000 and essentially donated it back to the city.

The second article describes an island in the city that would be promoted as an “urban campground” for scouting troops and potentially providing programs for “at-risk youth.”

This all sounds great, and anybody tasked with sitting down and sketching out a plan for an ideal city might be inclined to come up with something similar, but that’s just the problem: it’s a sketch.

The demographics of Central Falls gain its leaders access to government funding that wouldn’t be available to other communities.  And public dollars might transform some areas of Central Falls into a beautiful space, like the water-fire area of Providence, but at least per this article, there’s no indication that masses of camping kayakers are just chomping at the bit to take the commuter rail to Central Falls for a weekend of drifting along the river and getting a mild buzz on craft brews before buying a new bike to head home.

And even if there were, are there enough of them (and are their activities profitable enough) to make the public’s investment worthwhile? If not, who’ll pay to keep the area up and beautiful?

In the meantime, how many small businesses and other investments premised on the interests of the people who’ll actually operate them and evidence of existing demand won’t get off the ground because the government withdrew money from the economy, distorted land values with its purchases, and implemented zoning rules to advance a young man’s specific development vision?

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