PROVIDENCE — For the last 40 years, people would flock to Murphy’s Pub starting at 9 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish pub’s owner, Ruth Ferrazzano, would watch them gathered on Fountain Street, wearing layers of swinging emerald-colored Mardi Gras beads, four-leaf clover pins, and shades of green that ranged from chartreuse to a shadowy seaweed.
She would check on the kitchen staff as cooks prepared nearly 2,000 pounds of corned beef, and then unlock the front doors, ready to serve scores of Guinness pints and Magners cider over ice.
St. Patrick’s Day is typically the most important day of the year for Ferrazzano, who started working at Murphy’s as a waitress in 1979 and took over as owner in 1997. But last March, a dance competition and a construction conference scheduled at the Rhode Island Convention Center, which were supposed to bring thousands of people into Providence, were canceled due to rising COVID-19 cases. The day before St. Patrick’s Day, former Governor Gina M. Raimondo shut down in-person dining for all Rhode Island restaurants.
Since then, it’s been an uphill battle for small-business owners like Ferrazzano.
“We were shut down during what was supposed to be our biggest week. It’s been a horrendous year,” said Ferrazzano, who said she depends on events at the Convention Center and nearby arts and entertainment venues for the majority of her business. “It’s amazing we’re still open. I was very close to thinking that we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
By the end of 2020, Murphy’s sales had declined by more than 50 percent compared to the previous year. Since some state-mandated restrictions on restaurants have lifted, her sales are slowly starting to improve. But still, she said she struggles to foresee a future without events at the Convention Center, which is located just yards away from her doors.
The Convention Center, normally an economic generator for Providence businesses in the area, was transformed into a field hospital with nearly 600 beds during the pandemic. The conferences, events, tradeshows, and meetings scheduled there were cancelled, and the people who attend and run these events — who come to Providence from all over, selling out hotels, eating out in downtown restaurants, and shopping in boutiques — stayed away.
“There’s a whole universe in which the Convention Center is the beating heart,” said Kristen Adamo, chief executive of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But it’s been a year since the Convention Center was shut down, resulting in an approximately $60 million loss in direct spend revenue for Rhode Island. Providence hotels saw more than a 70 percent year-over-year decrease in revenue with occupancy rates that ranged from 8.4 percent in April 2020 to a peak of 30.6 percent in August 2020.
Greg Nawrocki, director of sales for Hotel Providence, an 80-room boutique hotel on Mathewson Street, said business from the Convention Center represented a significant portion of their sales.
Without the Convention Center events, Nawrocki said the hotel’s typical occupancy rate has dropped from about 80 percent to between 20 percent and 40 percent.
“The Center needs to open. Otherwise, it’s going to have continued, devastating effects on the community,” said Nawrocki. To increase sales, Nawrocki said the hotel was the first in the state to roll out a series of “micro wedding” packages. As the COVID-19 restrictions ease, the hotel plans to finally reopen Backstage Kitchen & Bar in April, their theater-themed restaurant popular with the crowds going to the nearby Providence Performing Arts Center (which is also currently closed).
The field hospital inside the Convention Center closed last month, but will be “kept warm,” meaning it will remain a hospital until the end of June in case the state sees another surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations. After that, it will take a couple of months to restore the building to its original purpose.
Adamo said she has pulled all of the Convention Center’s business through August, but continues to advocate to have the building open in the beginning of September, where she said she has business on the books with a pre-COVID spend value of $4 million.
“We’re not going to get 2,000 people at an event (now). But maybe we’ll get a quarter of that and have a $1 million month,” said Adamo. “I don’t know that we’ve had a million-dollar month in a year and a half.”
She added, “It’s a slow ramp-up, but we have to start somewhere.”
There are other businesses besides hotels and restaurants that rely on tourists and Convention Center events.
Kristin Stone, who owns the Providence River Boat Company with her husband, “Captain Tom,” said 75 percent of her business comes from tourism and happenings at the Convention Center. In May and June 2020, her sales dipped 83 percent from the year before, with a slight rebound from July through the end of their season in October, when they started catering to locals with nighttime boat rides and bottomless wine offerings that were included in higher-priced tickets.
“We knew it was going to be a disaster,” said Stone. “But what if hospitalizations increase? How do you argue against possible death?”
Other businesses in Providence have already felt the affects of the Convention Center being closed and the general lack of visitors throughout the last year.
Birch, a James Beard-nominated restaurant on Washington Street owned by chef Ben Suckle, closed in October.
Nick’s on Westminster Street shuttered just a year after its first anniversary last spring.
Bravo Bistro, which was located on Empire Street, announced it would not reopen in September 2020.
Acoustic Java, which opened in September 2019 at the site of the former Cable Car Cinema, closed last spring.
Luxe Burger, located at Exchange Terrace, closed for good.
These, among a growing list of many other businesses in the downtown Providence area, relied on the Convention Center and the Dunkin Donuts Center for much of their sales; but will now never reopen.
“We need to start thinking about how to bring business back to the Convention Center and how to bring it back safely,” said Adamo. “We’ve got a full-blown crisis in Providence right now.”
Back at Murphy’s, Ferrazzano said she still has sleepless nights, trying to figure out how to keep the pub that’s been open since 1929 alive for this coming St. Patrick’s Day — and beyond.
“You think that everything you’ve worked for in your life is about to go down the drain,” said Ferrazzano. “And it’s at no fault of my own.”