PROVIDENCE, R.I. – On a cold afternoon last week, the hot glass kiln inside the old red brick mill in Pawtucket was glowing at the Henrietta Glass shop. Jill Davis was hunched over a molten oven, making glass perfume bottles that will be sold nationally by the Anthropologie retail chain.
Davis started making blown glass products as a hobby to earn enough money to make a down payment on a car. Five years later this RISD grad has a wholesale business that employs five people and generates sales of nearly $500,000 a year.
Davis isn't alone; she is one of about 150 tenants trying to make a go of business in the old Civil War-era factory at Lorraine Mills at 560 Mineral Spring Avenue.. They are artists, entrepreneurs, small manufacturers and web developers, a constellation of the new face of Rhode Island business.
Despite the state's high unemployment rate, sluggish business climate and staggering government budget deficits, there are hundreds of entrepreneurs opening businesses in ancient Rhode Island mills that from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century churned out some of the world's best cotton and worsted woolen fabrics.
Nowadays, too many Rhode Islanders grouse about how bad things are. Business will never come or thrive here, this tired argument goes, because of our high tax rates or rotten government or high utility rates. Take your pick; a flick of the talk radio dial or a gander at the Providence Journal op-end pages brings another dose of gloom and doom, another desultory litany of why Rhode Island's cup is always half-empty.
Such laments are just one slice of the story. A trip through an old textile mill gives you a different view. Where 500 once people worked for one company, now 500 people work for 50 or 75 different companies. At the Lorraine Mill, this new class of entrepreneurs spends more time working and thinking and less grousing.
John Savage, the Providence lawyer who owns the building and has nurtured this incubator, says the remarkable aspect of this emerging business class is the community that has been formed in the mill. "It is a real community in there; they all help each other,'' says Savage.
Rents range from $3.50 per square foot to about $10.50, depending on the space, much lower, says Savage, than fancy spaces in downtown office buildings.
Among the new businesses are arts groups, graphic designers, web-based developers, clothing designers, wardrobe designers, architects, an art gallery, a sewing studio, a label maker, several print makers, a cigar maker and a film maker.
Cherry Arnold, a film maker, says that Lorraine tenants try to purchase as much as they can from other tenants. For example, Scott Benson, a woodworker and art installation specialist, crafted two custom desks for Arnold and he supplies a steady clientele of fellow tenants with custom wood frames for their artwork. .
Rhode Island government has not done enough over the years to invest in this scale of business. Our Massachusetts neighbors have done more and this is perhaps one reason why the Bay State has a significantly lower unemployment rate than we do. So while Rhode Island economic development leaders are busy luring onetime Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling with a $75 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan package, the city he once pitched in is busy investing in turning a swath of South Boston into an innovation district for fledgling businesses.
With Lincoln Chafee as the new governor, perhaps this will change. Chafee criticized the $75 million deal that the Don Carcieri Administration gave to Schilling to bring his video game company to Rhode Island.
Now might be a good time to listen to Jill Davis, the glass blower who has built a business from scratch to $500,000 in revenues in five years. She has this advice for the state economic development gurus: "Instead of giving one guy $75 million why not give a million people like me $75 each.''
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