His vision for Woonsocket opens opportunities for college grads

His vision for Woonsocket opens opportunities for college grads

'I'm trying to create a live, work, play ecosystem in Woonsocket'

WOONSOCKET - Ruarri Miller is the first to admit it will take dozens of puzzle pieces to fall into place in order for his vision for Woonsocket to become a reality.

"I'm not a superhero," he told The Breeze during an interview this week. "I don't want people to think I'm going to be their savior."

What Miller does have is an idea with a lot of potential, a strong work ethic and a passion for his project that makes it hard not to listen and want to jump on board with the plan.

The Philadelphia native has been working night and day for the past eight months on a concept he's dubbed "The Apiary," a multi-structure mixed-use residential and commercial development where recent college graduates can find not only a great place to live, but the opportunities and support needed to begin their careers. And he's targeting the city's Main Street corridor.

"I'm trying to create a live, work, play ecosystem in Woonsocket," Miller said.

Miller is a Providence resident, married with a son, and a recent masters of business administration degree from Northeastern University.

His multifaceted plan has benefits for the entire community, he says, with the potential to not only improve quality of life in the city, but to simultaneously create new businesses while attracting large, established companies to the area.

To draw businesses to the community, Miller says, you must first bring in the talent.

"Recent studies have shown what businesses want more than anything is a young and talented population base to draw employees from," he said. "Those are the things that start changing a business climate: it's by making a place where young people want to live."

In choosing a place to live, he said, young graduates look for great community: a lively, walkable ecosystem filled with restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, bars and grocers. Miller envisions breathing that life into Woonsocket's downtown.

"We think that Woonsocket has a lot of appealing features. There's a aesthetic here that you can't get anywhere else," he said.

Miller points out that 17,000 people graduate from colleges in Rhode Island each year, but the state has one of the worst rates of retention of students from out-of-state.

"Part of it is that right now 85 percent of college students indicate that after they graduate, they'll go home because they don't believe they'll be able to find a job that will allow them to afford to live anywhere but home," he said.

He aims to create a transitional place that's affordable, and will also allow those young graduates to find a job.

"They don't want to move back to their parents house," Miller said. "They want to be around other young people like they were when they were in college. We're building a bridge for them."

Miller intends to provide supports in multiple ways, starting by establishing relationships with the corporations already in the area from Fidelity Investments and Amica, to CVS Caremark and the neighboring businesses in Highland Park.

He'll also offer a "MOOC Campus," or Massively Open Online Courses, allowing members of the Woonsocket community to participate in collegiate business education at no cost.

The mixed use buildings for the project, he said, will also have commercial store fronts, creating an ideal situation for a young entrepreneur.

The project is named The Apiary because Miller imagines his structure will provide a safety net for the passionate but inexperienced group, much like a beekeeper's box that protects the hive.

"We believe everybody has the ability to create really special things but they just need a little help getting there," Miller said.

But it won't be easy.

Miller's crew will first need to acquire at least five sites with ground level commercial and upper level residential potential.

"If we do one, it won't work," he said.

He's found that buildings with such potential are surprisingly under-utilized and abundant in the city's downtown, and in many cases, they're are owned by individuals without the money or time to care for them.

"They can't renovate or maintain them because they're doing it with sweat equity," he said.

Meanwhile, the unique and historic buildings - one of the city's greatest assets - are crumbling underneath them. In his tour of local properties, he's found water pouring from ceilings and inches of mold growing on floors. In some downtown properties, Miller sees opportunities where it would be far more economical for the businesses to sell the building and continue operations as a tenant.

"It makes it easier for them to do their job and maybe stay around for awhile," he said. "I can make this work, but it's not going to happen unless the city takes action now while there's still recoverable assets."

Miller has met with both local and state officials and many have pledged support for his plan, and he has had some promising conversations with the owners of mixed-use properties.

But he'll also need capital, and has found that few investors are willing to take a gamble on a city like Woonsocket. Currently, he's exploring opportunities for crowd-sourcing.

"Essentially," he said, "people would be buying stocks in my company."

In Woonsocket, Miller said, he's met passionate and dedicated residents who have shown great interest in his plan. He wonders if those same residents would invest in the city's future.

"Would you rather spend your money on taxes, or would you spend your money on developing real estate?" he asked.

"I need to know, if there's a project, and people believe in it, will they support it?"

Ultimately, Woonsocket needs one strong push in the right direction, and it will be up to the community to help to make it happen. "I can't make money fall out of the sky. I can't make Woonsocket a community where big money companies are going to invest," he said. "But our plan for revitalizing Main Street has insight. If you build one little highly dense place - not just with one building, but with four five or six buildings - you'll attract young people and you'll attract businesses.

"For Woonsocket to win, we have to fight."

See www.gotoapiary.com for more information.