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Legislation seeks to maintain artistic presence in Providence

For all of the good things in Rhode Island’s capital — which not so long ago was a low-rent kind of place — it’s not without some serious challenges for Providence artists. One of the leading concerns is how real estate has doubled in value over the last five years, leaving even some of those making a decent living unable to afford a home. For artists closer to the economic margins, and small businesses facing displacement from the city’s increasingly desirable industrial buildings, the situation is even more worrisome.

The Partnership for Creative Industrial Space (PCIS), an advocacy group, has responded by promoting a tax exemption act. The measure, scheduled to be introduced this week by Representative Steven Constantino (D-Providence), chairman of the House Finance Committee, would provide relief from sales and use tax, tangible property tax, and state income tax for artists living and/or working in 37 buildings with the city’s Industrial Commercial Building District (ICBD).

Although the legislation was originally intended for all of the nearly 250 buildings in the ICBD, PCIS says, the number of structures was reduced to increase the likelihood of passage. The 37 included buildings stem from four qualifications: a high concentration of artist studios; the most practical buildings for artists to buy using the tax-free zone as an incentive; those owned by artists to offset the increase in mill property values; and recent redevelopment projects where significant rent increases effectively eliminate artists as tenants.

PCIS co-chairs Lisa Carnevale and Erik Bright tout the measure — which has attracted widespread support, they say — as a valuable tool to offset the challenge presented by soaring real estate values. "The ICBD Artist Exemption Act is an effort to provide economic incentives that make it more affordable for artists to rent or purchase space in these redevelopments and to encourage artist groups to obtain ownership of some of these buildings," PCIS says in a statement. "It is an important step towards keeping the existing artists as part of the community in the economic development zone."

As previously reported, the Steel Yard — a public foundry that offers an array of classes in blacksmithing and other skills — is the only redevelopment project in Providence that preserves not only the historic site, but the historic uses as well (see "The new fight for Providence’s mills," News, November 5, 2004). In another sign of the difficulties posed by the situation, it remains unclear whether an industrial designer making one-of-a-kind garbage cans at the Steel Yard would meet the definition of an artist for inclusion in the PCIS measure.

For their part, Bright and Carnevale note that a vibrant artistic community is an important part of economic development. Perhaps most importantly, they say, the measure "will encourage future projects in the ICBD by and for artists that would help promote the city’s commitment to the historic preservation of its industrial buildings, while showing its dedication to promoting a vibrant city of artists that has always provided the color for Providence as a destination."

Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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