The revelation that Rhode Island faces a $300 million-plus deficit for the current year is just the latest bit of dire economic news about the state. So maybe it's because he's young (29) and from the other side of the country (San Diego) that Wayne Franklin thinks Providence's small size offers exciting opportunities for leveraging sustainable economic development.
"I think a lot of the stuff is the smaller layers that make a city great," says Franklin, who became intrigued with Providence after repeatedly flying into Rhode Island and seeing parts of its cityscape while driving on I-95 to Boston. "It's just a cool city, and it's manageable, and I feel I can have more impact here."
Acting on this principle, Franklin over the summer launched OfficeLAB (urbansuninvestments.com/knowledge/news/), a cool office time-share on the third floor of the elegant old Federal Reserve Building, 170 Westminster Street, in downtown Providence.
For $175, programmers, Web designers, and other home-based workers can gain 40 hours of monthly access to office space, a game room, a conference room for meeting clients, and rotating gallery-like displays of art work. (There are also perks, including a receptionist-greeter, free coffee and copying, and high-speed Internet.) Twelve people have signed on thus far, far short of the maximum capacity of 80, but it's a start.
The bigger plan of Franklin — who has a background in real estate — is a new venture called Seed Providence, "an initiative to seed investment and collaboration in new ideas, ventures and places that further the economic, environmental and social sustainability of Providence."
The effort will consist of three inter-related parts: a Web site (seedprovidence.com, due to be launched this week) meant to be "a useful online resource for understanding the Providence 'experience' "; an investment fund that will invest "in new projects and ventures that will make Providence a better place, while earning a solid return on their investment"; and labs, funded through Seed Providence, that will attempt to foster education, local investment, urban experience, and such buzz-worthy concepts as creative economy, social entrepreneurship, and environmental stewardship.
While longtime Rhode Islanders can point with exasperation to the state's struggles to advance the cause of economic development, Franklin, who moved to Providence with his wife about a year ago, detects a lot of opportunity.
A lot of important pieces are in place, he notes, pointing to the compact scale of downtown Providence and its amenities, the presence of a vibrant creative community, and the recent arrival of John Maeda, the tech-savvy president of RISD.
During an interview in his space at OfficeLAB last week, hip music played in the background as Franklin sketched out his vision — for Providence to be talked about as a creative-tech hub in the same way as New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. That's a lofty goal, to be sure.
Rhode Island's small size, rather than being an advantage for the state, often functions as an obstacle to significant change.
Yet Franklin's outlook, touching variously on environmental sustainability and the need to do good without relying on "handouts," seems pragmatic and different from the local norm.
Whether that puts him in the vanguard of a new generation — or on an eventual frustrated track away from here, as cynics might suggest — time will tell.