NEFA Award Recipient

Providence, RI

Contact Name
Chris Ackley
Project Dates
2012 - ongoing
The Square One Initiative is an effort spearheaded by Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC) to comprehensively revitalize the commercial corridor of Olneyville, a low-income neighborhood on the west side of Providence. Square One uses marketing, beautification and sanitation, and the input of community stakeholders to rebrand Olneyville Square—once known as "Providence's second downtown"—as a destination attractive to all Providence residents. The Square One Initiative works concurrently with OHC's social enterprise landscaping venture, One Olneyville.
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:
The Square One Initiative began with a councilperson's suggestion that more attention be paid to Olneyville’s commercial district. The program began modestly as a weekly litter pickup, then expanded and incorporated new elements over time. Olneyville Square has historically been a true downtown, but a bad reputation has plagued the area for many years. Our challenge was not only to transform the physical space of Olneyville Square, but also to transform perception of a place thought to be dirty, dangerous, and largely undesirable.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
After several years of multi-faceted revitalization work, we realized our strengths and capabilities, and also recognized what was largely out of our control. We have grown to effect change where we can and encourage our partners to push other efforts forward.
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):
The Square One Initiative was made possible by a CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These funds allowed us to work with a marketing firm on the design and implementation of a logo and tagline, and to employ local youth for the regular maintenance of Olneyville Square. We were also able to work with local artists on various place-making projects, including steel cut-out lightpost banners designed by a feminist art collective located in the Square and produced by a nearby metalworking studio.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
In 2009, Olneyville helped to lead a comprehensive neighborhood planning process through extensive interviews with residents and community stakeholders. Through this process, several themes emerged as especially important to the community: social fabric, physical fabric, safety, housing, and economy. We believe that the Square One Initiative directly addresses all of these issues. Surveys also noted an urgent need for jobs for young people in Olneyville. The Square One Initiative's partnership with One Olneyville provides entry-level landscaping jobs for neighborhood youth.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
The first step in the Square One Initiative’s implementation was securing the CDBG funding, which allowed us to launch the program in earnest. We began with outreach to local businesses about our work plan in their commercial district. We hoped to engage merchants and property owners in our initiatives and work with, not against, their vision of Olneyville Square. Next, we released requests for proposals for several projects, which were supported through the CDBG funding. While carrying out these projects, One Olneyville continuously carried out sanitation work and OHC held bi-monthly meetings with merchants and stakeholders. We also created a website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for Olneyville Square, helping to rebrand the district and connect local businesses with larger audiences.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Over time, OHC has realized which efforts were good uses of our time and which were not. We found our beautification work and marketing very effective. However, engaging and organizing merchants has not been as fruitful. We initially hoped to provide merchants with technical assistance to help grow their businesses online, but this proved largely ineffective.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The HUD CDBG grant came with many strings attached, and though we had many successes, some projects were not able to be carried out as originally planned due to restrictions on federal funding. The individual situations of Olneyville Square merchants have also made organizing and business engagement a challenge.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
These obstacles are still very much present. However, the engagement of anchor businesses in Olneyville Square helped rally support for the Square One Initiative, which was crucial to our success.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Do as much outreach as possible at the beginning of your process instead of starting an initiative based on assumptions of community needs.
2. Trying to launch a revitalization project prematurely or too quickly may set you back even further, because future attempts will be viewed skeptically.
3. Engage a diverse group of stakeholders with different skills and ties to all sectors of the neighborhood.
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?
The Square One Initiative has produced an enhanced sense of neighborhood pride. The neighborhood is clean and beautified with flowers, art, and outdoor gathering spaces. Marketing efforts have given Olneyville Square a more cohesive sense of place, and public art brings attention to the presence of local artists and designers. Holiday tree lighting ceremonies or other community events bring people into the district and prove to be great opportunities to change visitor perception of Olneyville.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The project has been successful on many levels. The district is much cleaner and more attractive. Olneyville Square has also begun the process of creating a new image for itself, and has garnered some positive attention along the way with coverage in print newspapers, on the local radio, and on popular Providence websites.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Before beginning the Square One Initiative, surveys were conducted with both residents of Olneyville and of Providence as a whole, asking for their perceptions of the neighborhood. We will reissue this survey to gauge changes in public opinion about the current condition of Olneyville Square. By other metrics, new businesses have opened in Olneyville Square and merchants are now much more comfortable with our organization and trusting of our intentions in their commercial district.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
One unexpected impact of the Square One Initiative was greater familiarity between OHC and the Olneyville Square business community. Primarily an affordable housing development nonprofit, OHC’s initiatives had previously been concentrated in residential areas and had had little contact with Olneyville’s downtown. Square One had the unexpected and positive outcome of sharing our work with the neighborhood’s main business community.
CCX Workshop Handout