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R.I. town looks to crowdfunding to deal with finance woes

Mayor James Diossa (left) and planning director Steve Larrick are trying to return a sense of pride to Central Falls, R.I.

Glenn Osmundson For the Boston Globe

Mayor James Diossa (left) and planning director Steve Larrick are trying to return a sense of pride to Central Falls, R.I.

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — After the bankruptcy filing, after its corrupt mayor was sentenced to prison, this small Rhode Island city achieved national notoriety as a symbol of urban collapse and government mismanagement.

It was a heavy mantle for the former mill town, where 19,000 people inhabit slightly more than one square mile. And with the city’s finances locked down under a strict, state-supervised five-year budget plan — the result of the 2011 bankruptcy filing — the problems that dogged Central Falls seemed unlikely to be fixed any time soon.

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Instead of resigning themselves to the status quo, however, a group of energetic young leaders at City Hall has set an unlikely goal: to give gritty, downtrodden Central Falls a new identity, as a model of creative, modern, interactive government — “Government 2.0,” as the city’s 24-year-old planning director, Stephen Larrick, calls it.

To that end, the forward-looking new officials, including the 28-year-old mayor, James Diossa, and Larrick, are experimenting with a powerful Internet tool — online fund-raising, also known as crowdfunding — to solve problems beyond the scope of their budget.

In the first gambit of its kind in the Ocean State, Central Falls (motto: “A City With A Bright Future”) has partnered with a Florida-based start-up company, Citizinvestor, to raise money to help clean up historic Jenks Park, a well-known downtown spot the mayor refers to fondly as “our Central Park.”

There is no guarantee the plan will work.

About seven weeks after the park project was first posted on the government crowd-funding website, 42 donors have given $2,001 — just 20 percent of the $10,044 needed. Just over five weeks of fund-raising remain. Jordan Raynor, a cofounder of Citizinvestor, said projects on the site tend to collect most of their funding in their final weeks online.

City leaders say they are willing to risk failure.

“The government is constrained in so many ways right now, but that can’t stop us from trying to do the things that need to be done,” said Larrick, a Massachusetts native and Brown University graduate who came to Central Falls two years ago as an intern. “People don’t think of Central Falls and think of innovative, cutting-edge approaches to government, but we’re trying to change that perception. . . . We have to use every possible approach we can. We don’t really have any other choice.”

If the project achieves full funding, the money would be used to hire the Steel Yard, a local nonprofit, to create five new trash and recycling containers that would double as public art in the park. They would replace the cheap, aging, plastic trash cans now used, which frequently tip over, spilling garbage across a swath of green space considered one of the city’s gems. Beautifying the park could also boost public morale, said Larrick, who hopes installing something “beautiful and top-of-the-line is going to make people feel like they matter again.”

But even without knowing the outcome of the campaign, city employees have been energized by its sense of possibility. Since the bankruptcy, said Larrick, “people haven’t had an opportunity to talk like that, to ask, ‘If you had $10,000, what would you spend it on?’ Their eyes lit up.”

In another step taken to restore hope after the bankruptcy, the city’s leaders last year replaced the lights that had once twinkled atop Cogswell Tower, a symbol of Central Falls built within the park in 1904.

Observation balconies around the 70-foot clock tower provide sweeping views of the city below. Officials said the restoration of the lights, paid for with a grant and visible from nearby Interstate 95, has generated intense gratitude from residents and represent a small step toward rebuilding civic pride.

Public apathy is widely cited as a problem here. But organizers said they were pleased to see 50 people turn out for a cleanup day in Jenks Park on recent Saturday, including some 20 students from Central Falls High School who raked leaves for two hours in a chilly breeze. They included 17-year-old Evelyn Cante, a high school senior, who started a new school club aimed at giving back to the community. She recruited 60 volunteers to help at a Halloween party held for families in the park last month.

“People focus on the negative, but I see great things coming out of this place, and it’s time we started to acknowledge it,” said Cante, who donated $20 online to the Citizinvestor campaign.

City officials said they plan to ask Cante for help in reaching young people via social media like Facebook and Twitter. The mayor has met with the teen to discuss her ideas, she said. Diossa is the first Hispanic mayor to serve in Central Falls, where 60 percent of residents are Hispanic. His predecessor, Charles D. Moreau, resigned from office, pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge, and was sentenced in February to two years in prison.

“People are starting to feel the need to come together, to see that we all have to care,” Diossa said.

Still, the city has problems no website can solve.

Blocks from the park, a 110-year-old family business, J. A. Landry Hardware, plans to close its doors for good in December. The decline of the mills that were the core of its business left it struggling; sharp property tax hikes hurt even more. “If you’re a property owner, and a source of income for the city, you feel it,” said Joseph McCann, the fourth and final generation to work there. “Hopefully the city [leaders] can turn it around . . . I wouldn’t want their job.”

Tia Ristaino-Siegel, another volunteer at the park cleanup, said the city’s troubles have been a catalyst for change, motivating creative, committed people to get involved. A new group known as the community collaborative attracts dozens of residents to monthly meetings to plan the city’s future, a new community garden is thriving, and a new task force is targeting so-called “nuisance” properties, where noisy residents or neglectful landlords cause problems, she said.

In another low-cost effort to lift quality of life, officials have installed a new feature on the city website that allows residents to flag problems like potholes and abandoned mattresses for city workers, effectively crowd-sourcing aspects of public works management that the city can no longer afford to do itself.

Photos and locations downloaded to the website are sent directly to the DPW director.

“You can already see the shift,” said Ristaino-Siegel, who was elected last week to the city council. “There’s a lot of hope for the average person.”

Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com.
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