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Only in Central Falls

July 5, 2011

So I was working on a piece for NPR about Central Falls and its teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The editor sent me out at to grab some “man on the street” but she wanted business owners. I asked around for a colorful place and Megan Hall suggested Stanley’s Famous Burgers on Dexter Street.

But between my parked car and Stanley’s was Quality Auto Repair.

Now there are some shortcuts in radio when it comes to creating scenes. People know generally what diners, barbershops and auto shops look like and what people do there, so I gravitate toward those businesses because there’s no extra explaining needed.

Well, I see a nice man lingering behind the front desk of the auto shop and he’s willing to talk.  I first thank the radio gods, then fire up the recorder. We then have a color and frank conversation about what Central Falls used to be, the trouble it’s in now, and what he thinks put the city in the condition it’s now in. I rush back to the station, brag about my luck, and with a few edits wrap up the story for NPR.

Then I opened the paper the next day.

Turns out that nice man at the auto shop was the father of Richard Aubin Jr, who was arrested that  same afternoon on embezzlement charges. When I told this to the Central Falls police chief he says it sounds like we crossed paths.

Meanwhile, the conversation with my NPR editor went something like this:

“Hey, it’s Catherine in Rhode Island. So Central Falls, uh, there’s a problem.”

“What is it?”

“Um, the guy I interviewed, there are embezzlement charges. He’s not just your regular business owner.”

This was a new one for the editor who has worked for NPR for some time. It was certainly a new one for me. And now I needed a new person for my story. Out went Richard Aubin, and out I went back to Central Falls and Dexter Street where I found City Councilman Pat Szlashta. We talked about the woes facing his fellow council member and the fate of the city. He choked up, tears swelling in his eyes as he thought about the city’s future.

The story airs this week, but you probably know the details: Central Falls is broke, state didn’t give it any money, and funds will run out in the John Hancock pension in October. Only in Central Falls.

My Four Hours at the DMV

May 9, 2011

As the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles was putting the final touches on its list of 150 problems, I was sitting in the DMV compiling my own.  

Yes, I moved here from North Carolina about eight months ago. And yes, the reason it took so long was that I was terrified of the DMV.

It wasn’t that bad.

My husband and I went to the new branch in Middletown. It’s in a strip mall with a parking lot so tight that getting in and out should qualify as the driving test. The room is small with long, wooden pews that are great for spreading out every piece of documentation you have ever possessed.

While we were over prepared, there were those who seemed a bit underprepared – more than a few people asked to borrow a pen. And then there was the very nice man who chatted with me for about a half-hour on how ready he was only to return shortly after his number was called muttering, “dag. I was supposed to fill out a form.”

As for our adventure, I got everything I needed without a snag … unless you consider the horribleness of my license photo (I look like I’m having an allergic reaction). My husband’s adventure was more bumpy. There was some round and round about a VIN check that involved begging his bank to send multiple faxes and then driving back and forth to the Middletown Police Department.

In four hours we both walked out with our tags and licenses.  

If I were to craft my own list of problems at the DMV, here’s where I’d start:

The temporary paper licenses. I’ve had a license from five different states and this is the first time I’ve been handed a piece of paper. If the Sam’s Club in Anywhere, USA can laminate a member card on the spot, then the Rhode Island DMV can hand you a driver’s license.

No warning about the VIN check. Here’s the deal: if the bank owns your car, you’ll need them to fax you a copy of your title. You will need to take the title to a police station where someone checks it against your VIN and then fills out a piece of paper while you pay $10. Do this before you go to the DMV.

Don’t hide the forms for new arrivals. The lady behind the counter had to hand them to us, meaning we had to step out of line and fill out forms for transferring from other states and taxes.

Partner with a coffee shop. When four hours gets you high-fives for good time at the DMV, then food and drink should be available during the wait. That’s a long time to sit on those hard pews without a coffee and baked good.

Bailing out of historic floods

March 27, 2011

Flood waters reached the "Warwick" on the front of the animal shelter near the sewage treatment plant

The clear skies and sunshine that have graced the last weekend in March this year couldn’t be a greater contrast to the conditions Rhode Islanders were suffering through a year ago. Days and days of rain sent residents fleeing their homes by boat, left cars abandoned in place nearly submerged, and stuck the Warwick Mall in a sea of water. It’s amazing nobody died.

A new report out of Brown University Center for Environmental Studies looks back at how growth and development facilitated the historic flood, the response, the financial impact, and what we can learn with a year of distance.

The report starts with the Pawtuxet River watershed, which is the state’s largest covering about 15 percent of Rhode Island. The parking lots and roof tops replacing vegetation here, along with its circular shape, amplified the flood. The report also notes that the I-95 airport extension was built in a floodplain, which helps explain why it got flooded out a year ago.

Also along the Pawtuxet’s banks is the Warwick Wastewater Treatment Facility. I visited the treatment plant on a rainy March day with Mayor Scott Avedisian and plant superintendent Janine Burke, and there were some jokes about how March rain makes them a little jumpy. They can chuckle now, but a year ago Avedisian was grappling with flooded roads caving in, police sending traffic away from I-95 and through his city, homes catching fire, and a sewage treatment plant nearly underwater. He says his strategy was, “focus for two minutes, make a decision, and move on to the next decision.”

One call Avedisian had to make was whether residents could use their bathrooms.

 “You can do as much planning and as much training as you think you need to do,” he says, “but nothing prepares you to stand at a podium and have a press conference and tell people they can’t flush their toilets.”

Avedisian says people understood the magnitude of the crises and listened. It’s that pulling together that has stuck with him a year later. He credits the focus of sewage plant employees for bailing out the plant in less than a week. He says city employees with their own flooding problems put in extra hours to help departments they didn’t work in. And he’s still amazed that Rhode Islanders stepped in and took care of every animal in the flooded shelter.  

As the saying goes: character isn’t developed in times of crises it’s exhibited. And it’s remembered. Avedisian and Burke say they will never forget the spirit of cooperation they saw a year ago.

Reeling in wildlife funding dollars

March 10, 2011

Before the raucous rally outside City Hall where Providence teachers and union leaders chanted slogans and excoriated the mayor for all those pink slips.

Before the Providence mayor held a press conference in his office choked with reporters barking out questions in response to a budget filled with staggering numbers.

Before all of that screamed for our attention, U.S. Senator Jack Reed held a roundtable with state environmental officials at such a low volume that reporters in the room strained to hear the discussion.

Quietly, but passionately, Fish and Wildlife officials outlined for the senator how hunting and fishing help fill the state coffers at very little expense to Rhode Islanders.

Acting chief of Fish and Wildlife, Robert Ballou says every year some 50,000 freshwater fishermen stake out their spot and cast their line while pumping about $25.6 million directly into the state’s economy.

The saltwater fishermen, there are about 150,000 thousand of them in Rhode Island, injecting some $157 million into the economy.

Away from shore, 14,000 hunters a year generate nearly $14 million into the economy.

Fishing and hunting doesn’t come with the hype of a video game venture or the glamour of television and movie production. It also doesn’t come with tax incentives. Instead, a tax on hunting and fishing gear goes into a special, federal fund (that may be the closest thing to Al Gore’s  “lock box”) designated for replenishing fish populations and restoring wildlife preserves across the country.

These dollars bankroll about 70 percent of Rhode Island Fish and Wildlife’s nearly $9.2 million budget. As Ballou puts it, this is a circular funding system where the user pays and the user benefits. Though in the end, we all benefit from restored shorelines, fish populations and acres of public wildlife areas.

The Comedy and Tragedy of Theater in Rhode Island

February 23, 2011

Photo by: Joe O'Connor

On a brisk Saturday afternoon, nearly a hundred Rhode Islanders passionate about theater made the trip to The Gamm Theater in Pawtucket to hear about, what else? theater in Rhode Island.

WRNI theater critic Bill Gale set aside his sharpened pen for a friendly chat with Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, arts consultant Deborah Obalil, and Trinity Rep company actors Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne.

Each talked about the financial challenges that come with the business of theater when there are so many entertainment choices. But they all circled back to emphasize how supportive Rhode Islanders are of their local theaters.

The Gamm’s Tony Estrella elaborated on how he weaves classic and newer productions into his season line ups. He says he has a responsibility to theater and to give Rhode Island audiences something new to experience.

Deborah Obalil consults arts groups across the country, which gives her some perspective on what’s happening here, and she’s seeing a winnowing down in arts organizations. She thinks this will lead to more collaboration in the arts, something that’s already happening here with theaters loaning each other props and costumes.

Concerns were raised that theater faces too much competition from an on-demand world where movies, television shows, and video games come to you without ever having to leave your home.

But Mixed Magic Theater’s Ricardo Pitts-Wiley was in the audience, and he made a good point during the discussion session that the theater community needs to look no farther than Gillette Stadium to see that people will get up off the couch. He says the theater world should take a page out of the NFL playbook and figure out how to create an infrastructure of hype and tradition – think ESPN pre-game shows and tailgating. (Perhaps Bill Gale could fashion himself as the Howard Cosell of theater performances.)

Actors Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne also teach in the theater department at Clark University, and they’re encouraged by the collaboration their students are eager to embrace. This is very different, says Brazil, from the culture when she was in college where actors worried mostly about their own improvements. This collaboration, the couple says, is playing out among theaters in Rhode Island and part of what makes the community so strong.

Aquidneck Island ponders the future of former Navy land

February 9, 2011


On Thursday February 10th, residents of Aquidneck Island will chime in on what to do with 225 acres of land in Middletown, Newport and Portsmouth.

The Navy pulled out of the area back in the 1970’s, leaving behind the War College, Officer Candidate School and other entities. What’s left behind is prime waterfront real estate in some of the most beautiful parts of the state. In Newport, there are 10 acres at the historic Navy Hospital. There’s the former Navy Lodge in Middletown. And in Portsmouth there are two large tracts of land where the Navy stored fuel tanks. There are also a couple of roads, Stringham Road and a part of Defense Highway.

Federal law gives local governments the authority to decide how the land is developed. But the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act gives homeless services first consideration. None of the five applicants was a homeless service provider, and only one was from a private company.

The applicants are:

The City of Newport, which wants to use a portion of the Naval Hospital property for recreation and public space.

The Town of Middletown also wants public space for about 15 acres around Midway Pier and Green Lane.

The Town of Portsmouth is looking at four acres on a portion of Tank Farm 2 for transportation use.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation has its eye on Defense Highway and Stringham Road.

A company called Solaris Power, LLC wants the 96 acres of Tank Farm 2 for green energy use. There is no Solaris Power registered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State.

The panel overseeing redevelopment will submit a plan to the Defense Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development in August.

Rhode Islanders don’t show up to a blizzard with a credit card

January 19, 2011

Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence before sunrise the day some 16 inches hit Rhode Island

You have to understand: in the south your credit card is your ice scraper.

So when two to four inches of snow falls below the Virginia-North Carolina border, it’s a big deal because nobody’s equipped to handle it, which is why I didn’t know what to expect the first time Rhode Island got socked with more than a foot of snow. But you Rhode Islanders are well prepared with legions of trucks working the streets hours before the first snow flake. You’re also smart enough to stay off the roads.

We prepare in the newsroom as well: setting up interviews with RIDOT officials to get the latest road conditions, getting contact information on people who will have the latest information on power outages and traffic accidents, and checking in the night before with residents stockpiling at the grocery store (Why milk and bread? French toast?)

By 4:00am the newsroom is buzzing. Morning Edition host Elisabeth Harrison and producer Alex Nunes are gathering information on closings, putting out calls to forecasters, and running out into the storm to talk with storm crews about how it’s going. This isn’t easy. Every media outlet pretty much wants to talk with the same people at the same time, sometimes information isn’t updated for hours, and the conditions to get out and report are often treacherous for the ones sent to the hardest hit parts of the state.

We brave the roads when you don’t have to because it’s part of our public service mission. And we hope you have found it helpful as you woke up in the morning, heard about the road conditions, and decided to stay in bed and listen to the radio.