PROVIDENCE — Turning around a city’s economy is slow and hard work, but as Providence endeavors to do just that, lessons exist from other successful communities.
The capital city could consider work in northeast Ohio, Denver and other places, said Jennifer Bradley, a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, who will speak Thursday at the Providence Preservation Society’s annual meeting.
It’s important to consider those who can turn around a city as a network — of elected officials, philanthropists and leaders of universities, businesses, nonprofits and even museums. In cities that have succeeded, those groups realize it’s their responsibility to make social and economic change happen, Bradley said in an interview with The Providence Journal.
“There’s no place that gets turned around overnight,” said Bradley, who stressed that Providence is not one of the cities she has studied extensively. “But we have seen that there are enormous benefits from places taking their economic future into their own hands and not expecting that another entity will kind of swoop in and save the day and all that locals have to worry about are potholes and policing.”
These networks are stepping up in other cities to fill a void because the federal government has turned its attention to other matters, she said.
Bradley is the coauthor with Brookings colleague Bruce Katz of “The Metropolitan Revolution,” in which they describe a national movement taking root in cities across the country that are playing a critical role in fixing broken politics and fragile economies. Bradley is the second speaker for the Providence Preservation Society’s yearlong series “Not Always Easy: Building the New Urban Experience.”
Traditionally, Americans have measured economic success through the lens of easily tracked measures, such as housing starts and retail construction. Yet now, post-recession, Bradley says that “model of build it and they will come,” that endless cycle of consumption, doesn’t work anymore. What must take its place is the creation of exportable products or services unique to a city.
“What Providence and every metropolitan area has to figure out is: What are we better at doing than most other places?” Bradley said. “And how can we amplify that particular strength and how can we build up a strong group of companies and supporting institutions that are helping us build on … what are known as our tradable sectors?”
Bradley noted that “innovation districts” such as the one forming now in Providence are key to such turnarounds. Rhode Island has many of the assets Bradley believes cities need to prosper — universities, entrepreneurs and collaborative groups.
Efforts in Cleveland and northeast Ohio, outlined in her book, offer lessons for Providence.
In an area that was once a manufacturing powerhouse, much like Rhode Island was, people realized they needed to operate differently. The Cleveland Foundation took the lead in an effort to raise $30 million that would be jointly administered to support small business, entrepreneurship, work-force preparedness, manufacturing competitiveness and promotion of the region, Bradley and Katz wrote in their book.
But as the number of foundations grew beyond 50, the decision to give each foundation an equal voice was key. No matter if they gave $100,000 or $10 million, as the Cleveland Foundation did, each member got one vote at the table.
That really showed people it wasn’t about the city or the foundation “trying to run the show,” but it was about everyone moving forward in a more respectful, equal way, Bradley said.
“This is not just a new way to replicate some of the old power plays,” Bradley said. “You need to have genuine equality because otherwise people will say, ‘Why should I get behind someone else’s agenda?’ In a lot of places, it’s very hard for these very dedicated nonprofits to let go of the idea that they are going to save the day. They are so committed to their mission and believe fervently in the power of their ideas. It’s very hard to say, ‘I’m going to offer my ideas, but people may not want to get behind my agenda. I may have to get behind somebody else’s agenda, and I may have a tumultuous history with these guys.’”
That happened in Denver, beginning in the 1980s, Bradley said, when people who had clashed over issues of race, schools and annexation realized — because of an economic crisis — that they couldn’t keep doing what they had always done.
That was their epiphany moment, she says, that led to far better collaboration.
Like other cities, Providence will need to find its epiphany moment.
On Twitter: @JournalKate