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C.F. planning director sees river as key to city’s success

June 2, 2013

Central Falls Director of Planning and Economic Development Stephen Larrick is busy at his desk last Thursday. Larrick, 24, was the first person hired by receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr. as part of the city’s effort to recover from bankruptcy. Photo/Ernest A. Brown)

CENTRAL FALLS – When people try to describe Central Falls, many terms may come to mind, but there is one description no one ever thinks of even though its accuracy and its appeal cannot be denied.

Riverfront.

Central Falls is a city along the Blackstone River, and Steve Larrick, the city’s newly named director of planning and economic development, wants to make sure you and everyone else realizes that fact.

“When you’re in Central Falls, you can never be more than eight-tenths of a mile from the river,” he said. “People don’t think of it that way, but almost all of Central Falls is riverfront.”

And this river is no meager stream. It is a majestic waterway, a nationally recognized American Heritage River, which more than 200 years ago powered the birth of the nation’s industrial revolution. “We need people to see the river,” Larrick said, his voice urgent. “We have a tremendous connection to history and nature here, and it is all tied to the river.”

Larrick says he is ready to bring change to Central Falls.

“Rhode Island is a small place with a tendency like all small places to think inwardly,” he said. “Central Falls is like a Rhode Island within a Rhode Island. Sometimes we won’t try anything unless bigger cities and towns are already doing it. But if something is working in Europe, or in Colombia where so many of our residents are from, or in California, I want to take that best practice and see if it works here. … We need to think big and we need to think globally.”

Larrick’s comments came in a recent interview about his role as the new city’s first planning director (post-bankruptcy) and how he hopes to improve the image as well as the long-term fiscal health of Central Falls. Economic development that takes full advantage of the river, close cooperation with neighboring cities and towns, and a full-court press leading to establishment of a commuter rail stop in the Barton Street area are among his top priorities.

Larrick, 24, brings a great deal of enthusiasm and energy to his $42,000-a-year job, which he began less than four weeks ago, in early May. He is a native of Westford, Mass., a community near Lowell, and currently lives in Boston, so he commutes daily by rail to South Attleboro and then rides his bike to City Hall. He’ll be moving to the local area as soon as July.

A 2011 graduate of Brown University, with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies, he began working for the city as an unpaid intern in the planning department in the summer of 2011. Previously as an undergraduate, he had interned at Cornish Associates, a real estate development company known for its successful work in the Westminster Street area of downtown Providence.

In September 2011, he became the first person hired by receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr., becoming planning and economic development coordinator. He turned down a position with a private-sector employer, whom he declined to name, for the extreme challenge of Central Falls. “I took the job because I wanted to be involved in real, meaningful, impactful work,” Larrick said. “It truly was the best opportunity for me.”

“What attracted me to Central Falls,” he added, “is that it’s this urban place with the same kind of financial constraints that other communities have, but here, it is to the Nth degree. It was an incredibly painful time for a community that had to face a lot of tough decisions.”

Larrick has taken on a sizeable workload. Right now, he is the only paid employee in the planning department, so on top of everything else he’s responsible for routine clerical chores like answering the phone and taking meeting minutes. He’s in the process of interviewing candidates for several unpaid intern positions to get more staff on board. He’s not complaining. He’s well aware of the 21st century municipal dilemma: “how do you do more with less?” he asks.

He can rely on neighbors for help. Planning departments of nearby communities “were eager and excited to hear from me,” Larrick reported. “We need to foster cooperation and collaboration with the other cities and towns, just to survive.” One result has been the awarding of a state grant for a consultant to explore the river’s potential as an economic development asset, a joint Central Falls/Pawtucket project.

Regarding the river, a request for proposals (RFP) for development of Central Falls Landing, a vacant mill building on Broad Street at the Cumberland line, will go out this summer, Larrick said, in a joint project with the state. The site carries brewery and victual licenses, and has a dock with boat launch. Larrick would like to see such businesses there as a brewery, restaurant and bike/kayak rentals, in what he suggested could become a “regional attraction.”

Another key economic development initiative are long-range plans for a commuter rail stop in the Barton Street area and renovation of the mammoth Conant Thread Factory complex straddling Central Falls and Pawtucket. The 10 percent design study has just been done, Larrick said, meaning “we’re a ways out” when it comes to actual development.

Nonetheless, in an area with a combined population of about 90,000, “we should have a stop, there is no doubt in my mind,” Larrick said, but he warned that proponents will have to make their voices heard in order for the project – surely an expensive one – to become reality.

“Pawtucket and Central Falls, our administrations, we need to start clamoring and working on how to get that stop here,” Larrick said. “We need to start thinking about how to get this done. We need to be vocal and we need to be visible about this.”

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