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Providence Dreams Big With Major Arts Festival

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is embarking on his first major arts and tourism initiative since taking office in January. The first annual Providence...

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is embarking on his first major arts and tourism initiative since taking office in January. The first annual Providence International Arts Festival goes on all this weekend. City officials have grand plans for the event.

Days before -- and a mile from the festival site -- a group of local artists and musicians are busy sawing away at two-by-fours, and nailing them together at the Columbus Theater. They’re building a stage. Alternating wood stains create a red and brown striped pattern.

Peter Glantz is the mastermind behind the 'One Providence Experience', the part of the festival showcasing local musicians. His striped platform sits at the edge of a parking lot downtown. It's one of more than a dozen stages installed for the Providence International Arts Festival.

Glantz said he hopes the sprawling festival will excite the crowds who come see it.

“If people come and they’re inspired and they enjoys themselves as much as we do making the show; that seems like a good path.”      

That’s how Glantz is measuring the festival’s success.

There may be more at stake for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who touted this event during his campaign. He’s is now hinging his bets on the $700,000 street festival, as a way to draw tourists into the city during a time of year when colleges are empty and beaches are a just a short drive away.  His goals for success are lofty, as he told a crowd during a press conference in March.

“I have high hopes for this festival, and this is just the first, just think 20, 25 years from now, when it’s grown into a city-wide phenomenon, we can all say that we were at the ground level,” said Elorza.

He points to international festivals like South by South West in Austin, Texas, which started in the late 1980's, and now draws tens of thousands to the city each year.

Festivals have since popped up across the country, in what’s become a billion dollar industry, though not all have survived.

In Providence, members of this staff worked on events like Bright Night, Sound Session and Convergence; all festivals that didn’t last.

Festival organizer Kathleen Pletcher works with the arts nonprofit Firstworks, one of the event’s producers. She said this festival will be different.

“Underlying this festival is also a tremendous amount, sort of unprecedented, of business partnerships, in way that I think hasn’t happened before,” said Pletcher.

About half the nearly $700,000 spent on the festival is coming from corporate sponsors including Amica Insurance, Citizens Bank and Fidelity Investments. $150,000 is coming from the city.

Rhode Island Public Radio is one of several non-monetary media sponsors for the event.

All that investment is a good sign said Michigan State economist Steven Miller.

“You have a lot of private investment, that’s showing a lot of interest in it, and that, to me, tells a bit of the desire for that event.”

Miller studies the economic impact of events like this one. He says because the event is free to the public, it’s dependent on that corporate and institutional sponsorship. He adds the positive economic climate is ideal for funding the festival.

“In economic good times, when money comes a little bit easier, it’s a little bit easier to contribute to such events and see them happen, in economic downturns you see some of them pull back out,” said Miller.

And that’s when events like this shutter. Miller says the economy could falter in coming decades, which might leave the festival vulnerable. But if it takes off, it could be the spark Providence has been looking for.

“That could be the seed of economic development,” said Miller. “We see that especially here in Detroit, Michigan. An artist community is building, at some point they will contribute to the local economy.”

And to some extent that’s happening; Rhode Island School of Design has long been a visible presence downtown. New bars and venues cater to the city's growing music scene, out of which several local bands have gained national prominence.

Ben Knox Miller fronts the band The Low Anthem, which performs Saturday. He said he’s glad to be a part of the event.

“[It’s] certainly nice to be able to put artists to work and pay them a decent wage, and have team, do something together, feels good,” said Knox Miller.

Mayor Elorza hopes this festival bolsters the city’s reputation as a destination for artists and the urban creative set. Whether or not it will reach the heights it aspires to, remains to be seen. Economists say it’s hard to calculate the varied factors that make a festival succeed or fail, especially when it’s brand new.

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Providence Dreams Big With Major Arts Festival
Providence Dreams Big With Major Arts Festival