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John Kostrzewa: GTECH is only part of the new downtown

December 12, 2004

Two events occurred back to back this month that will have a lot to say about the future of downtown Providence.

One of them, under a big, white tent in the middle of the Capital Center district, attracted wide media coverage and most of Rhode Island's movers and shakers.

The other, on a dimly lit street in the city's core, got almost no attention. Long term, however, it may become more important to the financial health of the state's capital city. More on that later.

The event under the tent celebrated the start of construction of GTECH's new $80-million world headquarters on a vacant lot across from the Providence Place mall.

You may question the modern design that fights with the surrounding architecture, or the incentives that state and city taxpayers gave away to get GTECH to move downtown, but there's no questioning its economic impact.

The new, 12-story building will employ 500 mostly white-collar workers who will now spend weekdays in the city.

Bruce Turner, president and chief executive officer of GTECH, told federal, state and city leaders who gathered under the tent that government and corporate leaders from around the world will now travel downtown to do business with GTECH. They will rent 7,000 rooms a year at local hotels.

GTECH's employees and visitors will shop, eat, spend money and spur more development downtown. Plans already call for using most of the first floor of the headquarters for new restaurants, adding to Providence's reputation as one of the best places in New England to go out to eat.

In his remarks to the crowd, Governor Carcieri said the GTECH headquarters would create a new center in the city for commerce and people.

A few blocks away, other developers and city leaders who spent the previous night at an event in Downcity, an older section of downtown Providence, might have argued that point.

They organized an early-evening walk down Westminster Street, after the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree on the City Hall steps, to show off the new businesses, including a snazzy cafe, nightclub, craft store, hair salons, art gallery and bookstore.

The key to the development is the loft-style apartments and condominiums being created in the 19th-century mercantile buildings.

Several projects are under way in buildings once occupied by Peerless, Woolworth and other department stores that shoppers will recall from the old days. There's also the Hotel Providence being completed and L'Epicureo, the Federal Hill restaurant that is relocating to Downcity.

Those projects will draw new residents into the older downtown. They'll include not just the college students and artists who now populate the arts and entertainment district, but young professionals and baby boomers now in their 50s and 60s who are looking for a change of lifestyle as they get ready to retire.

All those people will live and work 24 hours a day in the city and bring new vitality, but it won't be the same as the days when holiday shoppers flooded downtown to spend money at Peerless, the Outlet and Shepard's.

However, there is a hint of new retail that is following the people into the city. Design Within Reach, a San Francisco-based purveyor of high-style home furnishings, has committed to locate its first store in a medium-sized market in the middle of the activity on Westminster Street. What the district now needs is a grocery store, a pharmacy, more retailers and restaurants and nearby parking -- all privately financed without taxpayer subsidy -- to turn it into the mixed-use urban village that developers dream about.

Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline attended the events under the GTECH tent and Downcity, where he stood in front of one of the new businesses.

"Thanks for coming," Cicilline told each of the small number of people who took the walk. Four elderly women attended the tree lighting and took the mayor's invitation to visit Westminster Street. When they turned the corner from Dorrance and looked down the street where they had shopped years before, they asked, "What's going on down here?"

From The Providence Journal

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