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McKee administration, Providence to commit $600k for WaterFire

The city had opted not to fund the arts event, but after the administration announced it would commit $300,000 to the arts event, the city amended its decision and also committed $300,000

Spogga, a performance artist, on the bow of fire-tending boat Prometheus at WaterFire Providence.Paul E. Kandarian

PROVIDENCE — Just days after the news broke that WaterFire, a beloved arts installation that draws large crowds to downtown Providence each year, was in danger of going under, Governor Dan McKee’s administration said Monday during a Commerce meeting that the state would provide the financial support that the organization needs to stay afloat.

Approximately $300,000 was authorized Monday during the meeting to be given to WaterFire. About $150,000 will be transferred immediately and the remaining money will be authorized next month. The money will come from the interim chief marketing officer’s tourism budget at the state’s Commerce department, which receives a share of the state’s hotel tax.


Commerce Secretary Pryor said during the meeting that the state has been in touch with leaders of WaterFire recently about their attempts to secure funds to continue to the annual event.

“WaterFire is one of our most renowned events,” said Pryor. He said people from around the region, and around the world, come to Providence for the event.

But on Saturday, the Providence City Council Finance Committee opted not to provide WaterFire with $300,000 in federal funds. The city amended their decision shortly after the Commerce board meeting announced their plans, matching the state’s $300,000 for a combined $600,000 to the arts organization.

“After extensive conversations with Barnaby Evans of WaterFire and other stakeholders, the Council is pleased to announce the use of $300,000 in [American Rescue Plan Act] funding to allow the organization to once again light up downtown beginning in September,” said Providence City Council President John Igliozzi in a statement.

Igliozzi said this first round of ARPA funds is to address the immediate community needs coming out of the ongoing pandemic.

“We have heard loud and clear that we need to help spark Providence’s tourism and hospitality sector, and the relighting of WaterFire’s braziers will do just that, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to enjoy a beautiful evening outside, stay at our hotels, and dine at our world-class restaurants,” said Igliozzi. He said he had a conversation with Pryor about a matching program for the organization to “ensure that WaterFire burns bright.”


WaterFire’s funding typically comes from a mix of private and public money, but WaterFire organizers said they asked for this boost from the state so they could approach potential private donors.

“We know that we are going to get an economic return with the ad spend,” said Matt Sheaff, who has been serving as the interim chief marketing officer for tourism in Rhode Island. He is also a spokesman under the McKee administration.

There will also be a celebration dedicated to first responders during the annual event. The details of this dedication are not yet known. The schedule for future events will be determined at a later time, according to Pryor.

“We’ve been really focused on reopening Providence... WaterFire is an economic engine for us,” said McKee.

After the City Council refused to provide the money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, WaterFire founder Barnaby Evans said the organization was in danger of existing in the future.

“It would endanger WaterFire’s ability to continue,” Evans said. “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, which is known to be the “face of Providence’s tourism scene” had to halt its lightings during the pandemic. The organization was hoping to use federal funds to help restart events and drive business to downtown’s restaurants, bars, and hotels, Evans said.

Evans said Monday night that the funding from the ARPA, along with the state’s, will allow WaterFire to hire back event staff, install the equipment, and host fall WaterFire evenings that will bring visitors to downtown.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.