Seeds planted for economic rebirth

SCIENCE OF LIFE: Dr. Edward J. Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown University, outside the school's new Warren Alpert Medical School. The building is a sign of the Jewelry District's transformation into the Knowledge District.
Posted 10/31/11

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of the Jewelry District in Providence.

To listen to some people talk, the demolition of the old Interstate 195 through Providence represents the most significant economic opportunity for Rhode Island in a generation. With some 20 acres of land in downtown Providence soon available for development, officials envision the Jewelry District teaming with life science companies and cutting-edge research.

“Tear it down and they will come,” Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee said.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity,” added Jim Bennett, the city’s top economic-development official.

In a state with stubbornly high unemployment and a constant pall of pessimism, the aspiring rebirth of the Jewelry District to a so-called Knowledge District provides a bright spot and a potential lure for private investment.

This year, Brown University opened its new Warren Alpert Medical School in the home of a former jewelry factory. Officials and local business owners say that medical research and creative companies already dot the neighborhood and serve as a magnet for like-minded companies.

That environment attracted Anne De Groot and her medical-research company, EpiVax, to the neighborhood eight years ago. Now with a growing company, EpiVax needs more space.

“I’m all totally about being in the Jewelry District,” De Groot said. “Somebody build me a building, I’ll move in.”

Economic-development officials want more of her kind.

The R.I. Economic Development Corporation – led by new directors appointed by Chafee – has retooled itself to focus on building a Knowledge District. Legislation enacted this year established tax breaks for life science companies that create jobs in the area. The law also set up a commission to oversee the excess highway land and combine a multistep, city-permitting process into a single state entity.

Officials say that while important, the land represents a mere piece of a broader strategy to use the neighborhood to catapult development throughout the city and the state.

“The 20 acres is a bit of the tail wagging the dog,” EDC Executive Director Keith W. Stokes said.

Officials repeatedly take pains to note the amorphous boundaries of the Knowledge District. They point out that toymaker Hasbro Inc. and gaming-company 38 Studios are just blocks away. They note the proximity of Johnson & Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design. They also note attractions such as Providence Place, nine art galleries and the Providence Performing Arts Center.

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