Artsy Mill Town May Be Rhode Island's SoHo

When Jessica Evans returned to Rhode Island after college to pursue a career in printmaking, she imagined opening a studio on Providence's popular Wickenden Street, where cafes hug the sidewalk, art galleries are plentiful and tourists wander in and out of antique stores.

But space there was out of her price range. So after shopping around, Evans was lured five miles upriver to Pawtucket, a gritty industrial town that's slowly attracting artists as its old mills are being converted into upscale lofts and affordable studios.

"I loved the idea of being in an old beautiful building," said Evans, 27, describing her nearly 2,000-square-foot studio space as affordable, accessible and safe. "Where Providence has galleries, shops and the Rhode Island School of Design, Pawtucket is where artists are actually working."

Many factors are contributing to Pawtucket's renaissance, including tax laws friendly to artists, its proximity to Providence and the interstate, low rent and an abundance of abandoned or partly used mill complexes that are perfect for artists seeking lots of space and natural light.

Evans' workspace is surrounded by other artists who have set up shop.

"It makes for a very interesting creative community," she said. "I had no idea this town was full of sculptors, painters, you name it."

It's also full of developers, such as Ranne Warner, who are helping build a lively arts community on top of Pawtucket's industrial past.

Carving Artist Lofts Out of Old Mills

Warner, who is Boston-based, bought the old Lebanon Mill Co. facility on the east bank of the Blackstone River for $550,000 last year. She's pumping $14 million in renovations into the 104,000-square-foot complex. By April, 60 residential and work lofts will have been carved out of the historical building and renamed Riverfront Lofts. Already half of them have been sold.

"There's been a heavy demand for the old mill buildings," said Michael Cassidy, director of planning and redevelopment in Pawtucket. "Many of the buildings aren't conducive to current manufacturing needs. This is a way to easily convert the buildings for use." In 1790, mills began to spring up along the Blackstone's banks as entrepreneurs saw how its surging waters could generate power to weave cotton into cloth or pound iron into tools. The first water-powered mill was built in Pawtucket, described by some as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.

A 10.5-acre downtown district comprising seven buildings and a bridge was added last year to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that brings the possibility of federal tax credits for owners who refurbish buildings for income-producing purposes.

Warner, a Harvard Business School graduate, said she found it tough at first to find financing for her mill conversion project.

"It was very difficult to find a bank that believed in Pawtucket," she said.

But the National Register designation helped, as did interest from buyers and the prospect of restaurants, shops and other venues popping up around the old mill.

Space for Artists Who’ve Made It

The Pawtucket arts district includes industrial buildings used as commercial and living space. U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has his office in one of the converted complexes. There's also a high school and 107-year-old armory, which is being converted into a performing arts center.

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