PAWSOX AND DOWNTOWN: A CHALLENGE
I went downtown Pawtucket on a fact finding trip for this commentary expecting to find urban blight. I did, but, I found some surprises as well.
My premise was to walk the route down Main Street from the future Pawtucket – Central Fall Rail Station location to the proposed new PawSox stadium Apex site. This is being touted as the likely path baseball fans will take from the station. It is not a pretty picture.
Starting from the Pawtucket School Department building at 268 Main Street to the East Avenue intersection there are a total of twelve storefronts. Eight of the buildings are not in use; boarded up and sadly deteriorating interiors. Some of these underutilized buildings are especially disheartening to baby boomers who knew the city in better days. The white marbled Albert J. Vitali building, which served as the old Industrial National Bank, still has a beautiful facade. The W.T. Grant building at 250 Main evokes memories of long ago shopping trips with parents. The interior of the Grant’s building still looks like a smaller version of the Arcade in Providence. It is now mostly vacant with only two visible businesses, the Flying Shutter and the CSPH organization.
Baseball fans traveling this route will not be in any hurry to return to Pawtucket.
A key financial element in the PawSox proposal consist of the added revenue to be generated from “ancillary development’ to be built near the ballpark. The team, and Pawtucket officials, speak optimistically of the Peregrine Group’s plan to develop properties near Division Street and the PawSox commitment to build 50,000 square feet of mixed use properties nearby. This sounds fine, but, Division Street is not downtown and the new buildings planned by the PawSox are in close proximity to the park. This new construction will have minimal effect on the deteriorating core of Main Street. When Apex moved into this location, while it enjoyed a decades long success, it did not bring vitality to the struggling business sector just down the street. When discharged from the Army in 1971, I worked at Apex. I know the minimal effect it had.
So, why are the team and the city entirely focused on new construction rather than revitalizing what exist? Have the city officials given up on this area? Why not make Main Street and downtown the gateway to the ballpark?
After the new Durham Bulls Park was completed in 1995 the owner, Jim Goodmon, knew the ballpark was not enough to turn around the blighted area. Rather than constructing new edifices he retrofitted the abandoned American Tobacco Company building turning it into a profitable twelve months a year mixed use complex.
I want the PawSox and Pawtucket to succeed. I was privileged to serve on the Pawtucket’s 21 Vietnam Heroes monument committee and I know how supportive the team and the city were to our efforts.
The surprises I saw after my depressing downtown walk? To gather more information I made my first ever stop to the Pawtucket Visitor’s Center. Located on Main Street they were hosting the 18th Pawtucket Film Festival inside its lovely small theatre which uses seats reclaimed from the old Leroy Theatre. A very nice touch. Also, curious to see the new microbreweries which are touted as part of the Pawtucket renaissance, I found The Guild at 461 Main Street near the new train station site. They were hosting an event and it was packed with young couples and families having a wonderful time. These are a nice beginnings.
I know Mayor Grebien and the PawSox want Pawtucket to succeed. With the impending loss of Memorial Hospital and the Gamm Theatre it is vital to reverse this slide and get momentum back.
I challenge them to think outside the box and focus on getting all the entities involved to make the true downtown a critical component of the proposal.
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