Bishop: Providence Needs Less Redevelopment Areas, Not More

Thursday, August 02, 2018

 

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Capco Steel employs 150 people working in gray buildings between Acorn and Sims avenue. The city has drawn a street and a public use plaza right in the middle of their business.

The Providence Planning Department stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy when it submitted a proposed “redevelopment plan” for 225 acres along the “Woonasquatucket River Greenway” between Olneyville and Providence Place Mall last month. The department had flushed $200,000 of federal money down the drain holding vision sessions and getting consultants to draw pretty pictures replete with street markets, hot air balloons, and all the very latest in urban chic.

But most folks don’t have my sensibilities about wasting federal money, so why is everyone so upset about these visions? Eminent domain is the number one problem. Whether you have a home or business in the target area, a plan that the city promises is just out to make your neighborhood better could actually result in your removal, along with others who live and work there. Such strategies are reminiscent of the famous Vietnam dispatch to the effect that ‘we had to destroy the village to save it’.

But that’s not our vision object the planners, who point out that the plan didn’t envision any specific use of eminent domain. No, it didn’t. It just made a very careful statement that the Providence Redevelopment Authority (PRA) retained the “right” of eminent domain. And this ordinance, if passed, had the city council finding in advance that any use of eminent domain whatsoever by the PRA in the future in this area would be presumed to be in the public interest of curing blight – even if that condemnation involved taking property from a going business and awarding it to some other private party.

If anyone thinks that redevelopment agencies are bashful about the use of eminent domain or feel some constraints due to the growing public concern about the private expropriation of a power supposed to be limited to truly public projects like roads and schools, think again. Before word of this land grab along the Greenway got enough businesses and residents boiling that the Council tabled it and the Mayor even suggested his team stand down for the moment, planning officials told the small businesses who were first to speak out that the ordinance made no difference: “We could take your property tomorrow if we wanted to.”

Is such a thing possible? Well, as it turns out, yes. As an artifact of the geographic eugenics that accompanied the progressive notion of redevelopment from the onset of such government efforts, 75% of Providence is already a “redevelopment area”, including all the land in the Greenway. The council has essentially surrendered ¾ of the city to the PRA. This has been going on for decades, and just how has it served us to have so much of the city declared “blighted and substandard”?

Eminent Domain in Providence – political and capricious

Before considering any new redevelopment plans, the very first thing the Council should do is repeal these broad generic designations of blight. Just because a neighborhood is challenged is no excuse to subject residents and businesses to an insecurity of title where their property can be taken at will by the PRA.

The Tavares Administration targeted a building downtown. The Cianci Administration used the power liberally on Federal Hill. The ACLU in its limited wisdom drew a line when Buddy came for the Columbus Theater, an astounding vaudeville era house that had changed with the times and kept the lights on showing X-rated movies following an early 70s run of Last Tango in Paris after it was banned in Boston. For decades, the family that owned the Columbus made it one of few businesses the kept running on Broadway in the evening as they continued to pay their taxes and bide their time. They actually staged occasional operas and theatrical productions during that 30 years hiatus into X-rated territory. But Buddy – in his Napoleonic fashion – decided it shouldn’t be up to the owners when this interim strategy would end, and he had the PRA condemn the theater.

Of course, some folks will see the ACLU as champions here, coming to the protection of the speech of the owners, but that is surely an ironic portrayal and reveals how shallow is the ACLU’s respect for property. The X-rated fare was not their chosen artistic expression but was a chosen business model to help retain their property. At the very same time, Mayor Cianci targeted a longstanding jewelry manufacturing business on Despasquale Plaza -- another owner who had paid taxes and kept a business running through the darkest times on Federal Hill. But he wouldn’t, in Cianci’s view, conform his own business decisions quickly enough to the emerging chic retail and accommodation sector on the Atwells corridor; and this owner had the lack of vision to to be unwilling to sell cheaply to private suitors who wanted to move more quickly. To Buddy, but also to all planners who think you hold and use your property at their sufferance, this was the very raison d’etre of the PRA, a political animal for distributing spoils that wraps itself in the cloak of “redevelopment”.

In the American experience, a fellow running a jewelry business is no less engaged in speech than one running a theater. In both cases the city had simply concluded it preferred other speech to that exhibited by the property owners.  But the ACLU only took the X-rated case. Thus, the only protection that most of us who don’t have boatloads of money for lawyers have from the voracious appetite of bureaucrats who think they know better what should happen on our property than we do is for the Council to rescind these broad generic designations of blight.

Whose Vision?

Well, the planners would say, their approach to the Greenway is a much narrower more targeted vision. Isn’t that what you are asking for? They only forgot to do one thing in this grand scheme, consult anyone who actually runs a business in the target area as to how these plans might disturb existing longstanding TAXPAYING industrial and commercial uses.

Sweet Lumber, holding down the Olneyville end of this corridor has seen visions come and go in the neighborhood during their 135 years on Harris Avenue! A decade ago, urban village utopians had a vision for a commuter rail station across the street from this business and drew similarly impassioned pictures of the future. The only thing missing in those beautiful depictions was Sweet Lumber, which had been erased from the neighborhood.

In this latest Greenway vision, the planning department erased work and lay down areas of Capco steel, that struggled through the recession but remains one of the largest employers in this district. Capco spans both sides of a ‘paper’ street, Charlotte Hope Way, which the city proposed to reopen after decades of disuse disrupting Capco’s operations and storage. And, just for a kicker the Greenway Vision drew a large multi-use public plaza outside the right of way and in the middle of Capco’s operations. While it’s true that the street is theoretically a right of way, its just as true that an industrial operation spanning both sides of such a street could petition to have it closed and such a request should be respectfully treated.

To engage in hundreds of thousands of dollars of study, and to have never even spoken to Capco about these plans is the kind of self-centered embarrassment that is Providence planning. This department operates in some kind of echo chamber where its own designs are seconded by an alphabet soup of non-profits who often receive grants and loans over which the city has influence. Geez, whaddya think they are going to say about what the city wants to do?  And that is called a public engagement process?!

Small businesses noted small but significant changes, buildings cropping up on their lot where there were none. And residents who were imagined to support the plan because it called for beautifying public spaces asked: “couldn’t we just get the railing on our bridge that’s been missing for years replaced?”. Without spending $200,000 we might have easily realized that residents would favor doing the simple and obvious stuff first. Graffiti is a much tossed about symptom of blight that the planning department seems to blame on the businesses there, rather than plan how to help with.

‘Artists’ Lofts vs. ‘Arrested’ Blight

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To be fair, infill on vacant lots with uses that make the neighborhood less deserted at night are strategies that would, in the long term, lessen depredation by vandals and make the area less solicitous of illicit transactions. But, if this were overnight magic, the Rising Sun Mills, and the Plant would be paradise. The experience has been otherwise for some upscale tenants in and adjacent to those developments who have made the decision to move on. There is simply no substitute for a graffiti squad and police patrols at present. The businesses and residents struggling with the current state of affairs are uninterested in supporting a plan that ‘destroys the village to save it’, premised on development that can push out current occupants – because more swishy lofts and farmers markets are not what your average resident or business in the Greenway needs.

This isn’t just a question of eliminating eminent domain language. It points out a need to go back to the very beginning with this effort, if not scrap it altogether. There is little doubt in the mind of businesses and residents that the subtext of this plan is to remake the neighborhood by providing land to private developers to renovate or build from scratch more projects like the Rising Sun Mills and American Locomotive. These developments are no ugly ducklings, but they are no more an asset to the city than Sweet Lumber, Capco, Twin City Supply, the Coca-Cola plant, the Providence Journal printing plant or the Portland Group, etc. Nonetheless, there is the distinct impression that the Planning Department is not interested in mixed-use that extends so far as any effort to retain these old-line businesses which fall under the department’s heading of “arrested blight”.

This term is a grudging admission that there might actually be going concerns there, providing jobs and paying taxes. But planners think: “it will never be more than a lumber yard” or a “plumbing store”. In other words, the state of development is ‘arrested’, as if a going business paying its taxes is a bad thing. That is not the language of infill uses that find a comfort with their industrial neighborhood and synergistically provide more round the clock use and habitation that together over time make the neighborhood less of a free for all of graffiti and drug dealing. Rather it is a roadmap in which existing businesses remain by sufferance -- to be pushed out at will when some mayor or planning director decides the time is nigh.

The Planning Department seems stuck on the old model of neighborhood clearing. In this context they substitute bureaucracy for bulldozers. They don’t knock down the buildings, necessarily. They don’t do it all at once. But they intend to clear the neighborhood eventually. This is a tactic, whether using eminent domain or regulatory policy, that is reminiscent of Suzette Kelo losing her home in New London to the greater good of weed-filled acres in New London.

Lower profile could be higher return on our planning investment

The redevelopment apparatus, of course, has another reading: if Suzette Kelo didn’t have the nerve to object to her property being taken, maybe the development would have been built before Pfizer moved out of town. Great, so they would have had an office and retail park serving a lost signature employer. This is why the job of planning departments shouldn’t be dictating private investment as if the city were their own game of monopoly but consider improving the business and regulatory environment and seeing to transportation and parking needs as areas develop.

Another challenge which may not seem like one for the Planning Department but is: the city’s preoccupation with making every major project prevailing wage. Given that Providence politics are left and lefter, it is unsurprising to see support for labor – specifically laborers -- unions (albeit fairly clear 1st circuit precedent hazards their method of union requirements for subsidized private projects disguised as “apprenticeship”). Maybe it is time, if the city is going to subject major developers to prevailing wage until forced to desist that the city department that writes and reviews agreements with such requirements should be charged to question whether that prevailing wage should be so close to Boston’s. Yes, they are geographically close together. But developers consistently demand subsidies since returns on projects in Providence are 2/3 or less of what they are in Boston but construction costs are close to the same. Maybe we should address those costs instead of becoming eminent domain real estate agents and dispensing tax subsides for any crane in the sky.

Yes, some local construction workers could chose to work in Boston if the pay were much better – as some already do just because there is more work there! But Rhode Island business owners could also invest in Boston. Our smaller investors don’t because they know and love the state and are willing to work here for less money. Just saying. . . . I’m unconvinced that a significant discount on Rhode Island’s prevailing wage would not still attract workers committed to our state.

These are tough questions, a far more difficult and delicate mission for the Planning Department than deciding to put a house on Park Place and a hotel on Broadway. But its what they ought to be doing .  Seeing that infrastructure is maintained and modest improvements made coordinate with private investment and neighborhood growth is more mundane -- definitely less master of the universe stuff. But its what they ought to be doing. And when private investment without tax or eminent domain subsidy displaces existing businesses and residents, finding alternative locations to house these people and enterprises is nowhere near as high profile as playing broker for Google or GE. But its what they ought to be doing.

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, over-regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy.

 

Related Slideshow: GoLocal Statewide Poll - Conducted by Harvard’s Della Volpe - June, 2018

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Registered Voters

Q1: Are you registered to vote in Rhode Island?

Total 501 100%
Yes: 501 100%
No: 0 0%
Don't know: 0 0%

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Gender

Q2: Are you ...
Total
Total: 100%
Male: 44%
Female: 56%

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Age

Q3: In which age group are you?

18-24:  7%
25-34:  16%
35-44:  15%
45-54:  20%
55-64: 17%
65+      25%

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Political Party

Q4: When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Democrat: 38%
Republican:14%
Moderate: 6%
Unaffiliated: 39%
Don't know/Refused: 3%

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Likely Voters

Q5: Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices.  How likely is it that you will vote in this election?   Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

 

Definitely be voting.............................. 81%

Probably be voting............................... 19%

All others.............................................   0%

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Top Issue

Q6: What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?
 

Taxes.................................................. .18%

Jobs and economy.............................. 16%

State budget.........................................11%

Roads...................................................10%

Education............................................  8%

Healthcare...........................................  5%

Corruption/Public integrity.................... 4%

Immigration..........................................  4%

Housing.............................................. ..2%

Governor............................................. ..2%

Homelessness.......................................1%

 

Other.. ............................................... 14%

Don’t know..........................................   6%

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Direction

Q7: In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?
 

Right track........................................... 19%

Wrong track......................................... 36%

Mixed.................................................. 45%

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Optimism

Q8: Thinking ahead several years, is your outlook about Rhode Island more optimistic or more pessimistic?   
 

Optimistic............................................ 52%

Pessimistic...........................................48%
 

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Finances

Q9: Over the last three years or so, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?
 

Changed for the better......................... 24%

Changed for the worse......................... 33%

Not changed at all................................ 43%

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Governor

Q10: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Gina Raimondo, a Democrat

I am sure to vote for her:  9%

There is a good chance I will vote for her:  19%

It is possible that I vote for her:  24%

It is unlikely that I will vote for her:  18%

I will never vote for her:  31%

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Governor

Q11: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Matt Brown, a Democrat

I am sure to vote for him:  4%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  8%

It is possible that I vote for him:  40%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  30%

I will never vote for him:  17%
 

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Governor

Q12: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Spencer Dickinson, a Democrat

I am sure to vote for him:  3%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  7%

It is possible that I vote for him:  37%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  35%

I will never vote for him:  18%

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Governor

Q13: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Paul Roselli, a Democrat 

I am sure to vote for him:  2%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  7%

It is possible that I vote for him:  35%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  37%

I will never vote for him:  19%

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Governor

Q14: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Allan Fung, a Republican 

I am sure to vote for him:  7%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  18%

It is possible that I vote for him:  28%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  25%

I will never vote for him:  21%

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Governor

Q15: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Patricia Morgan, a Republican 

I am sure to vote for her:  3%

There is a good chance I will vote for her.:   9%

It is possible that I vote for her:  32%

It is unlikely that I will vote for her:  35%

I will never vote for her:  21%

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Governor

Q16: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Giovanni Feroce, a Republican 

I am sure to vote for him:  2%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  5%

It is possible that I vote for him:  24%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  35%

I will never vote for him:  34%

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Governor

Q17: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Luis-Daniel Muñoz, an Independent

I am sure to vote for him:  3%

There is a good chance I will vote for him: 6%

It is possible that I vote for him: 33%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him: 38%

I will never vote for him: 21%

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Governor

Q18: Which of the following comes closest to your view regarding each of the following potential candidates for governor of Rhode Island?

Joe Trillo, an Independent

I am sure to vote for him:  1%

There is a good chance I will vote for him:  8%

It is possible that I vote for him:  37%

It is unlikely that I will vote for him:  34%

I will never vote for him:  19%

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Governor

Q20: If the election for Governor were held today and the candidates were: Democrat Gina Raimondo, Republican Allan Fung and Independent Joe Trillo - for whom would you vote?        

Allan Fung, a Republican..................... 33%

Gina Raimondo, a Democrat................ 33%

Joe Trillo, and Independent.................. 16%

Don't know     18%

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Governor

Q20: If the election for Governor were held today and the candidates were: Democrat Gina Raimondo, Republican Patricia Morgan and Independent Joe Trillo - for whom would you vote?         

Gina Raimondo, a Democrat................ 39%

Patricia Morgan, a Republican............. 20%

Joe Trillo, an Independent................... 19%

Don't know ......................................... 22%

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Governor

Q21: If the election for Governor were held today and the candidates were: Democrat Matt Brown, Republican Allan Fung and Independent Joe Trillo - for whom would you vote? 

Allan Fung, a Republican..................... 35%

Matt Brown, a Democrat...................... 25%

Joe Trillo, an Independent.................... 14%

Don't know .......................................... 27%
 

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Governor

Q22: If the election for Governor were held today and the candidates were: Democrat Matt Brown, Republican Patricia Morgan and Independent Joe Trillo - for whom would you vote?        

Matt Brown, a Democrat...................... 30%

Patricia Morgan, a Republican............. 20%

Joe Trillo, an Independent.................... 18%

Don't know .......................................... 33%

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U.S. Senate

Q23: If the election for the U.S. Senate were held today and the candidates were: [ROTATE] Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Robert Nardolillo - for whom would you vote?

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat........... 53%

Robert 'Bobby' Nardolillo, a Republican.. 31%

Don't know............................................... 16%

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U.S. Senate

Q24: If the election for the U.S. Senate were held today and the candidates were: [ROTATE] Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Robert Flanders - for whom would you vote?           

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat........ 54%

Robert Flanders, a Republican............. 32%

Don't know.......................................... 14%

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Schools

Q25: If there was an election today, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $250 million in financing supported general obligation bonds to repair Rhode Island's deteriorating school buildings and bring them up to minimum standards called "warm, safe and dry"?

Net: Approve...................................... 74%

Definitely approve............................... 36%

Probably approve................................ 38%
 

Net: Reject......................................... 17%

Probably reject....................................   9%

Definitely reject....................................   7%


Don't know..........................................   9%

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PawSox

Q26: The Rhode Island General Assembly is in the process of negotiating a $40 million public financing deal with the Pawtucket Red Sox for a new stadium, hoping to bring a vote before the House and Senate this summer.  

In general, do you favor or oppose the use of public funds to help finance a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox?
 

Net: Favor.......................................... 33%

Strongly favor...................................... 13%

Somewhat favor.................................. 21%
 

Net: Oppose....................................... 59%

Somewhat oppose.............................. 21%

Strongly oppose.................................. 38%
 

Don't know..........................................   8%

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Fane Tower

Q27: The City of Providence and the state of Rhode Island are considering a proposal by New York developer Jason Fane to build a 46-story luxury residence tower in Providence, next to a public riverfront park.  The developer will invest $250 to $300 million of his own funds.  The project is called the Hope Point Tower, it would be 170-feet taller than the Superman building and would require waiving height restrictions and the use of state tax credits.

In general, do you favor or oppose development of the Hope Point Tower?

 

Net: Favor.......................................... 39%

Strongly favor...................................... 13%

Somewhat favor.................................. 27%


Net: Oppose....................................... 50%

Somewhat oppose.............................. 23%

Strongly oppose.................................. 27%


Don't know.......................................... 11%

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Elorza/Traffic Cameras

Q28: How would you rate the job that Mayor Jorge Elorza has done managing issues related to speed cameras in Providence?

Net: Excellent/Good.......................... 26%

Excellent.............................................   6%

Good................................................... 20%

Net: Fair/Poor.................................... 74%

Fair...................................................... 29%

Poor.................................................... 45%

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Q29: Since it was launched in 2016, UHIP -- the Rhode Island program designed to improve customer service for those who receive federal benefits -- has run into significant problems, including long lines, cost overruns, lost applications, over- and under-charging of patients and families.   

Based on what you know at this time, what percent of 
blame for this do you assign to:
 

Deloitte, the consulting company who
produced the system........................... 53.3%

Governor Gina Raimondo, who has
been governor since the system
launch in September 2016................... 47.1%

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NIMBYism

Q30: Presently, there are local groups opposing the development of a natural gas facility in Burrillville, solar projects in Exeter, a LNG facility in Providence and wind projects in North Kingstown. 
Some people say that it is important for local groups to play a role in opposition 
of projects like these that could be dangerous or harmful to citizens; 

Others say that local groups have gone too far to the detriment of the state’s long-term energy needs. 

Which statement comes closer to your own view?

 

Local groups play an important role...... 46%

Local groups have gone too far............. 31%

Not sure................................................. 24%

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Corruption

Q31: Compared to other states, do you think there is:

More political corruption in RI................. 63%

Less political corruption in RI................   7%

About the same level as other states..... 30%
 

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Income

Q32: The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS.  Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).  

$50,000 or less.................................... 33%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000..... 18%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000... 16%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000. 13%

$150,000 or more................................ 10%

Don't know/refused.............................. 10%

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Ethnicity

Q33: What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?  

Net: White, Non-Hispanic..................... 82%

Black or African American....................   6%

Latino/Hispanic....................................   5%

Other....................................................   7%

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Geography

Q34: City/Town Into Region.

West Bay............................................ 28%

Metro-Providence................................ 28%

Blackstone Valley................................ 21%

South County...................................... 10%

East Bay............................................. 13%

 
 

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