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Founder says WaterFire endangered by Providence City Council decision

The city’s Finance Committee refused to provide $300,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for the iconic public art celebration

In this 2018 photo, several fires from the WaterFire installation burned at sundown in the Rhode Island School of Design section of Water Place Park in downtown Providence. WaterFire, an award winning art installation by Barnaby Evans, is a series of 100 bonfires suspended just above the surface of the Providence, Woonasquatucket, and Moshassuck rivers.BARNABY EVANS

PROVIDENCE — WaterFire, the public art installation of bonfires and music that draws big crowds to Providence’s downtown rivers every year, is in danger of ending now that the City Council Finance Committee has refused to provide it with $300,000 in federal funds, WaterFire founder Barnaby Evans said.

“It would endanger WaterFire’s ability to continue,” Evans said Friday. “The bottom line is we are in a pretty fragile state. Even with the $300,000, it was going to be pretty close. Without it, I don’t know how we will continue.”

WaterFire Providence had to halt its lightings during the pandemic. But the organization was hoping to use the federal funds to help restart the events and drive business to downtown restaurants, bars, and hotels with future events, he said.


“So many businesses are hanging by a thread, with no income and people laid off,” Evans said. “Hotels and restaurants are saying they need WaterFire to come back to jump-start the economy. We are eager to help the whole community.”

So he was surprised that the City Council Finance Committee on Thursday night decided not to include money for WaterFire in its first batch of federal relief funding.

“We were kind of blindsided by this,” Evans said, expressing hope that the full City Council will reconsider the decision.

He noted that WaterFire does not charge for people to attend most of its events, and he said that corporate sponsors have had other priorities amid the pandemic. So the federal funding is crucial, he said.

Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, issued a statement Saturday defending the decision. “WaterFire is an important arts and cultural institution in our city,” she said. “However, for this first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, we primarily focused on investments that will have an immediate impact on Providence residents, youth, and businesses who are still reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Ryan emphasized that this is just the first round of the federal funding.

“We will continue to work with WaterFire and other community organizations over the coming months to identify additional investments that will ensure Providence’s rebound from this very challenging pandemic,” she said.

On Thursday night, the City Council Finance Committee approved more than $42 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for investments in “key priorities,” including summer programming, free public Internet access at city parks and recreation centers, and homeless intervention.

The committee approved $4 million for a Roger Williams Park gateway, $3 million for street sweeping and sewer repair, and $1 million for summer jobs for Providence youth. This is the first batch of federal funding Providence is set to receive, and the ordinance is expected to go before the full City Council by the end of July.

Robert I. Burke, owner of the Pot au Feu French restaurant in Providence, blasted the committee for failing to provide the funding to WaterFire. He argued that nothing could have a bigger immediate impact than the WaterFire lightings this summer.

“As Yogi Berra said, it’s like déjà vu all over again, and this is like the PawSox all over again,” Burke said, noting state officials are blamed for losing the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester. “Rhode Island cannot afford to lose another treasure.”

In a letter to City Council members, Burke said, “As a business owner of a restaurant that will hopefully celebrate 50 years downtown in 2022, I have been asked by hundreds of people how the recovery of downtown is coming. When I tell them that there are only going to be a few late season WaterFires, they curse out our leaders.”


The kindest critics call the move shortsighted, Burke said. “Others get much more explicit and speak in unquotable terms of how aggravated they are that more is not being done to revive the greatest tourism attraction in the history of Providence,” he wrote. “The single most important action you can do to revive downtown is to re-ignite WaterFire.”

Burke said he fears that Providence on the verge of “a record disaster because everything that drives our economy has been taken away.”

“Theaters will not reopen until late fall,” he wrote. “The conventions won’t be back until 2022. Offices are empty. Hotels are running at a fraction of capacity. The Dunk is dark. College graduations won’t return until Spring ’22. It’s like the 1970s all over again. We have to jump-start tourism now!”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.