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Rome wasn't built in a day. But Providence was built in just a few short years. By one man. Or so Mayor David Cicilline would like you to think.
Since he launched his campaign for Congress, the Providence Democrat, who took office in 2003, has repeatedly taken credit for billions in economic development throughout the city, making it a centerpiece of his election bid.
His claim is specific: "By restoring trust in city government, Cicilline has ushered in $3 billion in new investment and restored vibrancy to downtown and the 25 neighborhoods of the city."
He's been saying it for nearly five years and it has become a central part of his campaign message. But that's a lot of investment for a city whose entire annual budget was less than $620 million last year.
Our interest sufficiently piqued, we called the Cicilline team for a breakdown.
A Rose-Colored History
After multiple requests, the mayor's administration finally provided us with a list. It was so exhaustive it suggested that Cicilline was responsible for nearly every major piece of Capital City development in the seven years since he took office -- and in a few cases, projects that began before he got near City Hall.
Frequented the Auto Zone on Manton Avenue or the expanded fitness center at Brown University? Thank Cicilline.
How about the parking garage at Rhode Island Hospital or the Walmart on Charles Street?
Or what about the storage units on Reservoir Avenue, or the West River endoscopy offices?
The mayor also takes credit for the construction of new condos, retail stores and several not-yet-built office buildings, as well as public projects including work on schools and roads. The list goes on. Over 100 projects in total.
The biggest item that he says he "ushered in" is the $610-million I-Way project, the relocation of a portion of Route 195 in downtown Providence. But the I-Way planning began more than a decade ago; the federal environmental impact statement was completed in 1996. The earliest phases of construction began in 1999, three years before Cicilline took office, and the financing came mostly from the federal government.
When we asked the Cicilline administration to defend the I-Way claim, they agreed it was an overstatement. Cicilline spokeswoman Karen Watts said in an email that the mayor "agrees with you that including the whole of the highway project in this list isn't correct."
But the administration insisted the rest of the list is accurate.
What about the combined sewer overflow project, a two-decade effort to build a three-mile long underground tunnel to contain sewage overflow during storms? He takes credit for $275 million of the $359 million development. According to the Narragansett Bay Commission's website, the planning for this project dates to 1993. Construction began in June 2001, more than 18 months before Cicilline took office.
The sewer project and the I-Way alone make up almost 30 percent of Cicilline's claim. So even if the rest of the list is valid -- which we don't think it is -- the accuracy of the statement has slipped significantly.
"The bigger projects, the 195 and the combined sewer, those were things that were going to happen, but the mayor pushed and got the changes needed [for them]," Providence Planning Director Thomas Deller said in an interview. "....Can we take credit for it? No, it was something that was going to happen. But it may have happened a little faster [with Cicilline as mayor] or a little slower" without him.
The problem is that the mayor did take credit for it. He said he "ushered" it in, remember?
The Cicilline team argues that while they may not have actually brought in every dollar for every project themselves, they created a predictable, trustworthy environment that made small business owners and developers want to invest there.
"The fact of the matter is that [the person] who is in office and who works for them has a lot to do with decisions about how projects move forward," Deller said. "The point the mayor was trying to make is how we work aggressively to make things happen."
We don't fault the mayor for claiming credit for hotels or developments such as the new Blue Cross headquarters. In several instances, it's clear his administration played an active role in making those developments happen. But he doesn't deserve credit for every permit issued.
It was not a one-time slip of the tongue either.
$3 Billion Claim Repeated
Cicilline has been using the $3-billion figure at least since January 2006, when he cited it in his State of the City address. In the years since, he has been quoted saying it more than a dozen times in The Providence Journal.
The claim came out of the "A Vision For Providence" study, a 2005 report that highlighted economic development, neighborhood by neighborhood.
What's interesting is how the claim evolved. In those early mentions, Cicilline said that economic development in the city hit $3 billion. Over the years, the statement morphed into one in which Cicilline took credit for bringing those projects in.
And when projects such as the One Ten Westminster condos fell through, the Cicilline administration just replaced that item with another, so the final $3 billion figure never changed.
Again, it's fair for a mayor to take credit for some of the economic development that occurred during his tenure. But not to exaggerate his role in those projects.
On his campaign website, Cicilline clearly implies that he had a hand in making the developments happen. Not only that, he takes credit for ventures that predate his term in office, and he repeats the claim in public.
We presented our research to Deller, a Providence City Hall veteran. At the end of a long conversation, his response: "If this were 2005 and I thought there would be a Truth-O-Meter sometime in the future, I might not have put it that way."
That's really all you need to know. False.
Cicilline administration breakdown of $3 billion in new investments, Received July 7, 2010
"Funding Study for the Relocation of Interstate I-195," Volume III, 2001 Financial Plan Update
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