Providence to help revitalize Urban League of Rhode Island building – The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — The Urban League of Rhode Island is no stranger to hard times.
It has fallen victim to crumbling finances, now in receivership after a forensic audit found it nearly $1.5 million in debt. It has also fallen victim to burglaries, graffiti and dumping.
Board Chair Beverly Ledbetter looked back on the league’s old days while sitting in an office strategically placed on one side of the building opposite where a health clinic and a daycare were once housed. That area has since seen break-ins from thieves stealing pipes.
As Ledbetter puts it, her side of the building just needs some love. The other side is in more dire straits.
Even one of her fellow tenants, Bernard Georges of New Bridges for Haitian Success, which offers resources to the Haitian community, knows change is overdue. He described the building as “falling apart all around us.”
Eventually, the Providence Redevelopment Agency will assess the structure to see if it can be saved and rehabilitated. Or it will be demolished. The redevelopment that may occur afterward would signal a new future for the league and for other community organizations.
On Monday, Mayor Jorge Elorza announced plans to revitalize the Prairie Street site as a new hub for community organizations. Elorza said the “building and its challenges came fully on my radar” about a decade ago during his first mayoral run when he met with then-Sen. Harold Metts.
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“He asked me if I would commit that with whatever happened with the Urban League site, that the Urban League as an organization would remain,” Elorza recalled. “I told him that I would.”
But whether the league would have any physical space in a rehabbed or redeveloped site remains to be seen. Ledbetter said the organization will have to vacate the area one way or another, but will continue to exist in some form, holding particular influence in decisions on the site’s future.
The league has spent more than 20 years there, though that is a drop in the bucket stacked against the group’s more than 80-year history. Founded in 1939 as a branch of the national league, its mission was based on ending racial segregation and discrimination. Today, it fights for financial empowerment, promotes public policy, hosts a food pantry and donates suits to men needing professional clothing.
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Whether any current tenants will be welcomed back to the new space is anyone’s guess. As Elorza’s term wraps, that decision will be made during Mayor-Elect Brett Smiley’s administration.
“The truth is that it’s all to be determined, and I would hope that there’s space,” Elorza said regarding the current tenants. “One potential vision — and it may go in this direction, it may not — this could be a hub for community-based organizations. … Or perhaps it’s a combination of housing and organization space. Perhaps it’s something else. We don’t know.”
The league will help to lead the way in the decision-making process. Ledbetter said “the return that we envision is for engagement, enlightenment … and empowerment.” That may mean workforce development and adult education programs will be housed at the renewed site.
Ledbetter said the process will involve asking for community feedback from South Side residents.
The project remains in its early stages, using $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the city to acquire the building, and $1 million in federal community project funding, which was secured by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
For Ledbetter, it’s about more than just the building.
“Without economic empowerment, we see Blacks at the starting gate,” she said. “But without the advances that we need in education, jobs and housing, leading to economic parity and self-reliance, we will be left at the starting gates and either not finish in the race or finish last.”


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