Funding the WaterFire Arts Center

Providence, RI

Contact Name
Peter A. Mello
Project Dates
2012 - 2017
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2017
Real Estate, Business Planning
In 2012, WaterFire Providence purchased a long vacant, rapidly deteriorating, historic industrial building in the underserved Valley/Olneyville neighborhood of Providence to develop into the organization's first permanent home in the community and a multi-use arts venue scheduled to open in May 2017. WaterFire Providence used variety of public and private sources for developing this 35,000 sq ft facility including a Providence Economic Development Partnership Grant (HUD), RI General Assembly Community Service Grant, RI Department of Environmental Management grants, US EPA Brownfields Remediation grants, RI Creative and Cultural Economy Bond funds, Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, Federal New Market Tax Credits, Nonprofit Finance Fund bridge loan and other philanthropic support.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Goals for this project included:

1. Create a WaterFire Providence's first permanent, visible "home" in the community in order to help sustain the organization's long term cultural and economic impacts for Providence and RI.
2. Develop a social enterprise platform for the organization that will allow it to create new, diversified revenue streams
3. Preserve an important historic structure that had been vacant and rapidly deteriorating and becoming blight on the neighborhood.
4. Bring art and vibrancy to an underserved neighborhood much the same way the WaterFire event has helped transform downtown Providence for the past 23 years.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
We initially purchased the building and planned for it to be WaterFire's headquarters and production facility; however, over time we identified a need for and interest in also developing the space into a multi-use arts venue that can host events, exhibitions and performances.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Partners/Stakeholders/Project Catalysts include:

1. ArtPlace America - WaterFire Providence received a large creative placemaking grant in 2012. The organization had requested funding to help purchase a building but ArtPlace declined saying that our community should support this investment. This was a major catalyst and door opener for the project.
2. City Councilwoman Sabina Matos / Mayor Angel Tavares / City Council President Michael Solomon - Elected officials were early, active champions for the project.
3. City of Providence / Providence Economic Development Partnership awarded a grant of $250,000 to assist with the purchase of the property.
4. State of Rhode Island General Assembly $250,000 Community Service Grant to assist with the purchase of the property.
5. RI Department of Environmental Management with grants to hire an environmental engineer to undertake Phase 1 and Phase 2 environmental assessments and site testing.
6. US Environmental Protection Agency - Three $200,000 brownfields remediation grants totalling $600,000, the most an organization can receive on a project in a funding cycle, to clean up the industrial property.
7. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) provided a recoverable grant for project pre-development expenses.
8. Champlin Foundations with an early $265,000 grant for a new roof to stabilize the building and a second $250,000 grant to the capital campaign for building support.
9. RI voters through the Creative and Cultural Economy Bond - In November 2014, RI voters approved Question 5 - The Creative and Cultural Economy Bond for $30,000,000 of which $3,162,600 was designated to the WaterFire Arts Center. WaterFire Providence was 1 of 9 leading performing arts nonprofits that developed the concept, presented it to then Governor Chafee, shepherded it through the RI General Assembly to be place on the ballot and ran a grassroots voter campaign to get the bond approved.
10. US Department of the Interior and Bank of America (investor) - Federal Historic Tax Credits
11. US Treasury / LISC (allocating agency)/ Bank of America (investor) - Federal New Market Tax Credits
12. State of Rhode Island Office of Historic Preservation- State Historic Tax Credits
13. Nonprofit Finance Fund provided a bridge loan on our capital campaign for the project.
14. Russ Morin Catering is the WaterFire Arts Center event manager/catering partner who provided a loan guarantee to the Nonprofit Finance Fund.
15. Barbara Sokoloff Associates is a mission based funding consultant who helped us put together the complicated funding package for the project.
16. Donors and foundations supported the project from the very beginning and continue to support the project throughout its life.

How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The WaterFire Art Center project meets the objectives of the City of Providence’s Comprehensive Plan. Specifically, the neighborhood plan for the Valley neighborhood identifies the former American Locomotive site – where the property is located – as a mixed use development representing the transition from industrial to mixed use. Objectives SE-4 and BE-3 of the Comprehensive Plan call for adaptive reuse of industrial buildings and high quality mixed use developments. Objective BJ-1 aims to retain and expand businesses. Objectives AC-4, AC-6 and PS-1 of the Comprehensive Plan express the City’s desire to establish Providence as a tourist destination, enliven the public realm with art installations and support public art in public spaces. WaterFire’s development of this property will complement the significant investments made at the adjacent ALCO campus as well as further along Valley Street and elsewhere in the neighborhood.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
While WaterFire Providence believes that its project will be unique in the region and possibly in the country, first and foremost it will be WaterFire Providence's "home." There are several projects that have influenced our thinking about what the WaterFire Arts Center can also be including MASSMoCa and Basilica Hudson.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
In 2006, a strategic plan was originally drafted and adopted by the WaterFire Providence board which identified the need to build capacity including purchasing a building in order for the organization to sustain and increase it's significant cultural and economic impacts long into the future. In 2011, WaterFire increased organizational capacity by moving to a bifurcated leadership model with the hiring of a managing director to be coCEO with the founder/executive artistic director Barnaby Evans. In 2012, WaterFire received a large, prestigious ArtPlace America grant which did not fund a building purchase but helped to open up other opportunities in the community.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
As can be the nature of these types of projects, it has changed over time. Most significantly, late into the planning, the project was surprisingly awarded $2,250,000 in RI State Historic Tax Credits which allowed the organization to reintroduce some features that had been value engineered out.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The WaterFire Arts Center project had a very complicated funding package; so complicated, in fact, that the project was the cover article of September 2016 issue of Tax Credit Advisor magazine. The project leveraged a variety of Federal and State funding programs that do not easily complement each other.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
WaterFire Providence hired Barbara Sokoloff Associates who was absolutely instrumental in managing the complexity of the deal and overcoming the obstacles.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Engage and secure the support from your local elected officials and community leaders
2. Find some early philanthropic champions for your project and build on small (or large) successes. Persevere.
3. Explore, identify and secure as many different funding sources as possible and consider hiring Barbara Sokoloff Associates, or someone with similar experience and success as a funding consultant. It can be a very valuable early investment in the project.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Soon after WaterFire Providence purchased the property, significant economic development began to take place in the neighborhood with other abandoned commercial properties including 2 adjacent mill properties that are being developed into 300 new housing units. Just across the river from the site the WaterFire Arts Center project a major agriculture/food nonprofit is developing a project.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The original goal of the WaterFire Arts Center project, to create a permanent home for the institution remains the main goal today. However, due to the nature of the property and the organization's success in identifying and securing other public funding sources, the project has been able to grow substantially more than originally envisioned. Therefore, at this early stage WaterFire Providence considers the project to be a success.
How did you measure this success or progress?
So far the success of the project is measured by the significant public funding secured as well as the various stakeholders reception to the WaterFire Arts Center. Long term success will be determined sometime well into the future after the organization occupies the building and develops a balance of programming that will support WaterFire's mission.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
While WaterFire Providence has always been enthusiastic and excited about this project, stakeholders' interest in and enthusiasm for the WaterFire Arts Center has been more than anticipated. Additionally, significant real estate development in the neighborhood has gained momentum since we publicly announced the project at an EPA Brownfields Grant event we hosted onsite in May 2013.
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