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From grime to shine. Missing out on massive urban renewal may be the best thing that ever happened to Providence, R.I.

By Kerry Elizabeth KnobelsdorffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1987

Providence, R.I.

TARNISHED by press clips that mention urban decline and underworld ties, this Eastern Seaboard city has had trouble attracting and keeping new business. But now this 350-year-old city is riding the wave of New England's resurgent economy and working hard to spruce itself up to lure business and investment.

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City officials and community leaders, however, recognize that it's going to require a good deal more than cosmetic improvement. The city's reputation has done a lot to stunt its growth.

``Providence's image needs as much renewal as its economy if we are to compete with the region's big cities,'' Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. says. Recent arson attacks on Union Station and the Outlet Company, two of the buildings targeted for renovation, cast additional doubt on whether substantial changes will be achieved in Rhode Island's capital city.

But ``cities can overcome stereotypes,'' says Richard Gureghian, director of communications with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Economic Affairs. Southeastern Massachusetts - just across the state line from Providence - is very vigorous now, Mr. Gureghian says, but it first had to overcome problems similar to those facing Providence today.

Mayor Paolino is confident his city can compete with its larger neighbors. He recently launched a $300,000 advertising campaign to promote these indications of revival:

The city is preparing for a huge $300 million retail, business, and hotel complex called Providence Place, which will fill the 30 acres of vacant land between the State House and downtown, known as the Capital Center.

The river's edge in downtown Providence will be the site of a $120 million project called the Foundry, with 200 specialty shops and a 300-room Sheraton hotel.

The city's two rivers are being moved back to their original banks to make the waterfront more visible and accessible.

A city convention center is scheduled to begin construction this fall.

Restoration of historic residential areas and plans for new housing are accelerating.

Billboards around the project area call Providence ``the city that works,'' for business, residents, commuters, and students. The ads speak of lower housing, business, and living costs, and the presence of prestigious colleges (Brown University is here) for those who are looking for a fast-growing, yet historic and small-scale, city.

When driving through Providence, however, one doesn't see the destruction usually associated with such large-scale urban renewal. No city blocks have been leveled to make room for progress.

Instead, narrow streets that stripe the sloping land overlooking the state capitol are lined with cobblestone sidewalks and rows of newly redone colorful old clapboard homes. Along the waterfront, once-deserted warehouses made of brick, sandstone, and wood now house restaurants, stores, apartments, or the developers who converted them.

Even shopping centers look as if they grew in this city where no building is higher than 30 stories, observes Joseph Cerilli, president of the Providence Land Company, which rehabilitates old structures here.