The “Knowledge Economy” and Providence

Back in the late 1970s when I was a student at Providence College, downtown Providence left much to be desired. Aside from regular trips to the Civic Center (now the Dunkin Donuts Center) to see a Friars basketball game or making the passage to the East Side and the bookstores and pubs around Brown University, there wasn’t much reason to venture downtown. But eventually, Providence embraced the arts and the whole tenor of the city’s downtown changed. Back in the 1990s I recall then city councilor Grady Mulligan and others traveling to Providence to learn about arts districts and artist live-work spaces, ideas that soon took root in Lowell. Midway through this past decade, with my son approaching college age, he and I made several trips to Providence, visiting the PC campus, catching some basketball at “the Dunk”, and just being very impressed with how well the city had remade itself.

According to this article in last Wednesday’s New York Times, economic planning in Providence seems to be pivoting in a new direction. The reason? “The city’s manufacturing base was waning and the luster of the city’s so-called Renaissance in the 1990s, which focused on the arts as a means of revitalizing, was losing steam.”

After a “grass roots” planning effort, Providence has chosen to focus on “meds and eds”, using the city’s hospitals and colleges as the foundation of a “knowledge-based” economy. A 360-acre site of underused factories and offices has been designated as the city’s Knowledge District in which Brown University has built its new medical school in a converted factory. Toy-maker Hasbro has relocated there “because the young talent it needed to attract to its gaming division preferred an attractive, urban environment.” To that last point, without the previous focus on the arts, Providence would not have the “attractive, urban environment” that would draw those employed by the knowledge economy.

Here in Lowell, with UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, the city’s hospitals and legacy of technological innovation, it would seem that following in the footsteps of Providence once again might be a wise path to take.

9 Responses to The “Knowledge Economy” and Providence

  1. PaulM says:

    Yes, Dick, I heard similar observations at a conference on Gateway Cities at Clark University last summer, concerning development strategies for older, smaller to mid-sized cities that have the advantage of being hub cities, like Lowell and Providence. It’s all about creativity, innovation, research, “knowledge workers,” and such terms that are used to capture the meaning of economic activity driven by imagination, ingenuity, and expertise in technology.

  2. Brian says:

    I think the area by the arena and ballpark could make a good knowledge district. Difference being it would have to built from the ground up since the mills have been converted to housing. Is the city attempting to woo companies like 38 Studios to Lowell with tax or other incentives? If not we should. Whatever happened to building a hotel next to the arena?

  3. DickH says:

    I’m skeptical of corporate tax breaks. Didn’t Raytheon get a huge break from the state back in the 1990s and, as soon as the financial benefits were realized, the company closed plants and laid off a bunch of people? That’s my memory, at least.

    Too often communities get in a bidding war against themselves in providing ever more lucrative tax breaks to entice companies to locate. If the infrastructure, work force, and delivery of services are all there, a company should find a community to be a fit place to locate without the need for corporate welfare.

    As for 38 Studios, it’s run by a guy who’s very vocal about the need for smaller government until it comes to something that benefits him financially, then he’s all for it. If it helps the rest of us, it’s socialism. If it helps him, it’s good government. A knowledge-based economy is good; a hypocrite-based economy is not.

  4. KevinH says:

    So, three things are required. A Compelling Vision, Maniacal Talent and Free Market Capital. PaulM I’d be happy to sit down with you for “une bière” to talk about the reality of making this happen. As the saying goes… “talks cheap, takes money to but a pig”.

  5. joe from Lowell says:

    I don’t see any evidence that Lowell’s arts economy is losing steam. Quite the opposite.

  6. DickH says:

    I agree that Lowell’s arts economy remains vibrant – just try to park on Western Avenue during Open Studios. But I don’t see a creative economy and a knowledge economy as being mutually exclusive. If anything, they’re compatible. There’d be no harm in pursuing both simultaneously.

  7. Brian says:

    Timely article in the Sun.
    I keep hearing how young tech people want to work in an urban environment yet cutting edge companies set up shot in the boring Westfords of the world. Probably because that’s where mgmt lives. They’d be smart to hang a shingle in Downtown Lowell to attract and keep young talent.

  8. Bob Forrant says:

    A bit late to the conversation…There is a third way, maybe, to think about this. We need a three-legged stool to rebuild the Merrimack Valley economy: the arts as exemplified by Western Avenue studios and the Revolving Museum; high tech as exemplified by the firms that dot Route 3 that we can see now that the leaves are gone; and good old fashioned industrial production as exemplified by the hundreds of small precision metalworking firms that dot the Commonwealth. An interesting examination of this can be found in a new book by an MIT research affiliate, Catherine Tumber, “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” Book group anyone???

  9. PaulM says:

    Bob, Yes, book grooup for this one—and maybe we try to get the author herself to Lowelltown for a discussion. This is good Innovative Cities Project follow on to the conference last year. Let’s talk.