CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Eight years ago, Central Falls was facing dark days. The impoverished 1.29-square-mile city had just emerged from bankruptcy, and its former mayor, Charles D. Moreau, was heading to prison after pleading guilty to a federal corruption charge.
But hope for better days burned bright when voters elected a 27-year-old son of Colombian immigrants to become the first Latino mayor in the state’s first Latino-majority city.
On election night, James A. Diossa stepped into a Colombian restaurant, La Casona, to deliver a victory speech to some 300 supporters, thanking his father for three decades of working nights at a Central Falls light-bulb factory “so his son could achieve the American dream.”
During his time as mayor, Diossa has faced crises, including the 2014 closure of the Osram Sylvania light bulb factory, which left 88 workers – including his father – without a job. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has hammered Central Falls, which has emerged as the hottest spot in a state that now has the highest infection rate in the country.
But through it all Diossa, now 35, has been lauded for transforming Central Falls by renewing a sense of pride, placing the city on firmer financial footing, and inspiring a new generation to get involved in local government.
“Mayor Diossa has led this great city back from the brink,” US Representative David N. Cicilline said. “He has restored public faith in city government, brought in millions of dollars in new investments, and strengthened the city’s long-term financial outlook. Thanks to Mayor Diossa, Central Falls has truly become Rhode Island’s Comeback City.”
Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a long-time community leader who founded the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and now hosts the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show, called Diossa “a transformational figure” not just for Central Falls but for the entire state.
“His leadership and results at such a young age have encouraged many other young people in our community to believe that ‘Si, se puede,’ " Rodriguez said.
Diossa’s tenure has included missteps. His opponent in the 2012 mayoral race, former Central Falls Police Chief Joseph P. Moran III, noted that earlier this year, the city had to issue $682,000 in refunds and tax credits after city officials miscalculated tax records, resulting in an 8.95 percent increase in the overall levy – more than double the amount legally allowed under state law.
He also said the city should beef up its highway department and do more street sweeping, but he singled out Diossa finding new owners for the light bulb plant as a significant achievement.
“Overall, I’m not critical,” Moran said of Diossa. “We have different political views. But they did well. He’s a Central Falls kid, he went to high school here. And I want to see Central Falls kids do well.”
In an interview, Diossa said the “fiscal misstep” that led to tax refunds was addressed immediately and the official responsible for the miscalculation was let go. Also, he said the city has fortified its finances with a $1.5-million “rainy day fund,” and he is proud of how clean the city is now.
Diossa said he worked with state officials and the LEDVANCE lighting company to find a new owner for the light bulb plant, which occupies a prominent 12-acre site on one of the city’s main streets. The new owners are Phoenix Investors, a Milwaukee-based real estate firm that plans to demolish parts of the plant, renovate others, and lease space to industrial companies in late 2021.
“It shows the city is bouncing back,” he said.
Diossa said another sign of hope is literally a sign, with the city’s name spelled out in lights.
Diossa said he had seen similar signs in Colombia and other countries, and Green Development, a renewable energy company, agreed to donate the sign to the city. It stands at the site of Central Falls Landing, a $4 million project that aims to turn an abandoned mill into a commercial center on the south bank of the Blackstone River.
“I hope many people from across all generations from Central Falls come to this site and take selfies and share it!” Diossa wrote on Facebook. “I am proud to be from this city and to have led it in the last 8 years as mayor.”
Diossa said other promising developments include the Pawtucket/Central Falls commuter rail station scheduled to open at the end of 2021, and the Workforce Development Hub that Rhode Island College opened in the city last year, which provides residents with easy access to education and job training.
Diossa said he also is proud of the city’s two new artificial turf fields, which give local youth a place to play sports. “We had the worst fields in the state,” he said, “and now we have some of the best.”
But inequities persist in Central Falls, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made them worse. The city’s lack of affordable housing means that extended families are packed into small apartments, making it difficult to isolate if one member of the family contracts the virus, Diossa explained. Many Central Falls residents work in warehouses, nursing homes, and restaurants — jobs where remote work is impossible.
The city’s cumulative rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 stands at 14,916 – by far the highest in the state, with Providence the second highest with a rate of 9,552 per 100,000. More than half of Central Fall’s 19,400 residents have been tested for the virus, and a 27 percent of them were positive, according to the most recent state Department of Health data.
While the city’s Office on Health, which launched four years ago, has made a big difference during the pandemic, Diossa said he knows people who have lost a parent or a grandparent to COVID-19.
“It’s devastating,” he said.
So what’s next for Diossa? On Monday, he served as one of the state’s four presidential electors, casting Electoral College votes for Joe Biden. Meanwhile, his name has come up in conversations about who might run to replace Lieutenant Governor Daniel J. McKee in 2022, and he has made no secret of his interest in the position.
“I’ve always said that if there is any role for me to help the progress in Rhode Island, I’m willing to step up,” Diossa said. “It’s flattering that my name was mentioned, and I’m not shy to say that if called on, I will definitely do my best to serve.”
He has already developed his point of view on certain topics expected to draw attention at the State House during the legislative session that begins in January.
On legalizing recreational marijuana: “We see other states around the country moving in this direction,” he said.
On addressing address climate change: He noted Central Falls has moved to renewable energy sources, and he said the state should continue to develop the wind turbine industry.
On gun control: He said Rhode Island should pass gun control measures such as banning high-capacity magazines and prohibiting guns on public school grounds except for those carried by law enforcement — both measures he has supported as a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
For now, Diossa said he plans to take some time to enjoy being with his fiancee, state Senator Sandra Cano, and their 16-month-old daughter, Arianna Hallel. He is ready to hand the reins over to Central Falls Mayor-elect Maria Rivera, who will be sworn in on Jan. 4.
“This will be one of the best jobs in her life,” Diossa said. “There is nothing better than being able to change peoples lives for the better. Central Falls is a great community that has had great moments in history and also dark ones, but it always manages to come back on top.”