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Mayor Smiley: Transforming Providence into a World-Class City

Mayor Brett Smiley is dedicated to making Providence the envy of cities around with world with its unique assets.

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With his slender frame and boyish haircut, Brett Smiley looks young to be the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. Still, the Illinois native has packed a lot of politics into the two decades since he graduated from DePaul University in Chicago. He ran a congressional campaign in Chicago, then moved to Rhode Island in 2006 to help run a gubernatorial campaign, helped elect and worked for Providence mayor Jorge Elorza in 2004, and served as then-governor Gina Raimundo’s chief of staff before running for mayor in 2022. Running a campaign short on lofty rhetoric and focused on constituent service, Smiley, who is married to real estate developer Jim DeRentis, won a three-way primary in September 2022 and, in this heavily Democratic city, won election unopposed in November.

Smiley inherited a city with tremendous assets—culture, heritage, diversity, and location—but also long-term challenges in public education and economic development. “I think Providence can be a world-class city, the envy of other cities around the country,” the new mayor announced after his election. We spoke with Smiley about how Providence can recover from COVID-19 to become that city.

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What was the impact of COVID on the city?
We had a downtown that, like all downtowns, had far fewer workers going into the office. Our convention business had stopped. And the effect on our young people in terms of actual learning loss and the loss of socialization because of two years of remote or disjointed learning—that was really on the surface.

You have spoken of making Providence a “world-class city” and “ the best-run city in the country.” How do you get there?
When people who’ve never been here before come to Providence, many say, “Wow, this place is amazing, I had no idea.” I hear the phrase “a hidden gem” a lot. My goal is to make Providence no longer a hidden gem but a gem that everyone knows about. I look at our assets—historic architecture, world-class institutions—Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design—some of the best restaurants in the Northeast, if not the country. And then this strategic location between Boston and New York—you couldn’t have picked a better place. So what I mean by being world-class is being world known or nationally known as a destination or to live.

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Let’s talk about economic development. Where are the opportunities for Providence?
Our secret sauce remains our vibrant cultural scene. The arts and culture create real economic opportunities for us. And we have real opportunities in the blue economy. There are over 20 wind energy businesses in Providence, and the south coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island is going to be the source of construction, fabrication, and installation of all the wind farms from Rhode Island to the Gulf of Maine. We can and should be a talent hub for the higher-skill white collars jobs that spin off from this industry.

One personal question—you happen to be the first mayor of Providence in 50 years who’s married. You are also the first gay and married mayor of Providence. How does that inform your leadership?
This is a hard job. The idea of going home alone and not having someone to kind of decompress with is hard. So, I’m very grateful to have a supportive husband who loves this city as much as I do. And though I am very focused on the nuts and bolts of this job, it’s not lost on me that a subtle act of activism happens every time the mayor introduces someone to his husband.

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