PROVIDENCE – Mayor Jorge Elorza likes to refer to himself as Providence’s cheerleader-in-chief.
During his annual State of the City address Monday evening, the sixth-year mayor did everything but break out the pom-poms as he offered a glowing portrayal of what he called the “New Providence,” touting record investments in public parks and infrastructure, and improved customer service for residents and businesses.
Despite facing criticism from some members of the City Council, Elorza also doubled down on his support for redesigning Providence’s streets to make them safer for pedestrians and bike riders while claiming the city is doing its part to tackle generational challenges like climate change.
“Regardless of what the challenge is, the New Providence will meet the urgency of the moment,” Elorza said in his prepared remarks. “Guided by our values of integrity and professionalism; being open-minded and forward-thinking; tech-savvy and data-driven; kind and compassionate; people-centered and inclusive; bold and creative; and above all, always looking out for one another; we will achieve our audacious goal of being the best mid-size city in America.”
Left unmentioned was the gravity of some of the problems Providence faces, including a school system that was in such disarray that the state took control of the district in November and an underfunded pension system that Elorza has previously warned could bankrupt the city in the next decade if changes aren’t made.
Unlike the State of the State address, which the governor typically delivers during the same week in January when a new budget is introduced, the State of the City speech gives the mayor an unrebutted opportunity to showcase a vision for the city several months before the budget is submitted to the City Council for further review.
Elorza, a Democrat who is already eyeing a run for governor in 2022, said the city is closing in on its goal of having a park within a 10-minute walk for every child in Providence. He said the city has made deep investments in its 100 public parks, many of which hadn’t seen a makeover in decades.
“The New Providence is a place where community is created in celebrations at Fargnoli Park, in football games at Bucklin, in festivals at Donigian, in beer gardens in Burnside, trick-or-treating at Brown Street, in concerts and festivals at Roger Williams, and in activities at all the 100-plus little village centers that are scattered throughout our city,” he said.
In a throwback to his first campaign for mayor in 2014, Elorza said the city is no longer a place where residents have to “know a guy to get a pothole filled.” He said his administration has improved the city’s 3-1-1 service to report neighborhood issues while also streamlining the process for obtaining permits and business licenses.
“We’re doing things the right way in City Hall,” Elorza said. “We are professionals who treat our residents and businesses as customers and provide them best-in-class city services.”
Elorza also touted record-low levels of crime in the city, praising former Police Chief Dean Esserman and Hugh Clements, who has been chief for nearly nine years. Esserman is widely credited with improving the department between 2003 and 2011, but he resigned following a high school graduation party that included underage drinking took place at his home. He later served as police chief in New Haven, Connecticut, but now lives in Rhode Island.
On schools, he said Providence will borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to make repairs to its crumbling classrooms over the next decade and suggested the district has already invested in the social and emotional needs of its 24,000 students. He also vowed to offer every child in Providence an opportunity to attend free pre-kindergarten by 2022, a timeline that is more ambitious than the one Governor Gina Raimondo has already proposed.
Elorza acknowledged the city’s economy ”is still transitioning from an industrial, manufacturing base to a knowledge and technology base,” but he said his administration is now offering programs to "support our entrepreneurs and make sure that no one is left out of our growth and progress.”
“We are catering to our natural strengths rebuilding our economy with an eye towards the future,” Elorza said, referring to the cluster in wind energy companies that have emerged in Providence as well as an urban agricultural business called Gotham Greens that recently opened on Harris Avenue.
While Elorza offered an optimistic outlook for the city, it won’t be easy to make substantial improvements to the schools or the pension system before he leaves office in three years.
Elorza acknowledged that he was shouted down by a thousand teachers during his State of the City address two years ago because the city and its teachers’ union were making little progress in contract negotiations. A new deal was ultimately reached after Elorza was re-elected, but state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green will handle a new contract negotiation later this year.
The city pension system is just 26 percent funded with unfunded obligations topping $1 billion. Elorza spent years advocating for state lawmakers to allow him to sell or lease Providence’s water supply and deposit the proceeds into the pension system, but he pulled the plug on that plan last year after receiving little support for the idea.
Among the issues Elorza said he still wants to address are the city’s long-term finances, housing displacement, substance abuse, and “the growing anger and division in our society.”
“But there is also no doubt that we are better positioned to address these challenges than we’ve been in decades and we will continue to confront them head on,” Elorza said.