2016-05-26 / Front Page

Community Conversation Upon Entering Newport

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By Lynne Tungett

TOP: The area encircled in red shows the suggested Pell Bridge off ramp closure. ABOVE: The sailboat sculpture in a water feature is one of the ideas proposed at a recent forum to increase the “sense of arrival and discovery” when entering Newport. (Illustration by 3six0 Architecture) TOP: The area encircled in red shows the suggested Pell Bridge off ramp closure. ABOVE: The sailboat sculpture in a water feature is one of the ideas proposed at a recent forum to increase the “sense of arrival and discovery” when entering Newport. (Illustration by 3six0 Architecture) Experts in varied fields joined residents in an exchange of ideas on Saturday, May 21, at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum regarding the “sense of arrival and discovery” as one enters into Newport.

Ronald Lee Fleming, organizer of the three-panel forum, felt there was a good turnout for the gathering and said people are excited and enthusiastic about making Newport’s entry portal “a pleasing place as well as a pleasing space.” Later, he told Newport This Week, “If you do small things and people can see a positive impact, it will become a basis for the future.”

Fleming has certainly lived by the adage, as a driving force behind the citywide daffodil beautification project over the past several years. Earlier this spring, he was instrumental in the planting of 15 trees at the base of the Pell Bridge off-ramp. So his role in soliciting input for the long-discussed bridge realignment project is not a surprise.

The first of the nine panelists was architect Christopher Bardt, a RISD professor for more than 20 years, who gave a critique of the west entryway onto the island from the bridge. He was clear in saying, “These are not proposals or conclusions, just ideas.”

Bardt then presented 10 schematics for how to transform the land between the bridge ramp to the Connell Highway traffic circle. Two showed the earth configured into berms or ripples; a park plan showcased tree plantings; another created a small pond or water feature; and yet another suggested installing an iconic beacon such as a lighthouse or crossing sailboats.

Another panelist, Nora Diedrich, director of the Newport Art Museum, echoed the desire to see sculpture as an entry feature. She advocated that local artisans be included in collaborating on the public space. “The re-creation, the making, builds community,” she commented.

“A dull sense of arrival” was how Eric Offenberg, the Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority’s director of engineering, described the entry to Newport from the west.

After millions of cars cross the picturesque two-mile-plus span, Offenberg said “it’s like they get to nothing.” But with public safety as his priority, he noted that traffic has dramatically increased since the bridge opened in 1969. Quarter-mile backups frequently form because of the stop sign at the end of the downtown ramp, followed immediately by a traffic light to the right at Van Zandt Avenue, particularly at peak tourism season. If the off ramp were to be realigned and extended, he said the longer distance would allow travelers a more gradual slowdown after traveling 40 mph.

From the audience, former Mayor David Gordon spoke up. “For anything on a large scale like this, nothing ever goes anywhere without the City Council getting involved. [Newport Director of Civic Investment] Paul Carroll needs to be in on this.”

The next portion of the “conversation” moved to “The Meaning of Welcome as a Visitor Experience” and was moderated by Ruth Taylor, director of the Newport Historical Society. She was joined by David Small, whose Cambridge design firm created the initial entry space for the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, and brought high-tech interpretive displays to the Monti- cello visitors’ center in Charlottesville, Va. He showed images of nearly a dozen worldwide projects in which he was involved, illustrating his views of a “Tell, Reflect, and Ask” approach to visitors’ centers.

Newport Restoration Foundation Director Pieter Roos also sat on this panel and represented Discover Newport, the city and county convention and visitors’ bureau, as a former nine-year board member. Roos and Taylor discussed what the city’s visitors are interested in and what tools can be used to orient them. While they agreed that many tourists come for the historic sites and houses, have dinner, go to the beach, and experience other cultural offerings, Roos stressed that visitors “return because of the city’s atmosphere.”

In a phone interview with Newport This Week, Discover Newport CEO Evan Smith cited five “silos,” or broad themes, of why people come to the city. In no particular order of popularity or significance, he said they are events, history/ culture/arts, health/wellness, outdoor recreation, and culinary. Weddings are a huge economic engine, he stated, with the city hosting more than 30 each weekend from May to September.

Nationwide, and for Newport as well, Smith said the number one motivator is culinary interests. “We’re a magical, multidimensional destination because we have such depth to offer visitors. Our restaurant community provides great diversity, our event roster is strong year round, recreationally we have it all, from tennis, golf, to passively walking on the Cliff Walk, and it’s all concentrated in a small area.”

“The success of our destination is due to many, many partners, museums, the shopping community, restaurants, all the sports, and transportation,” Smith continued. “Everyone is marketing the destination and deserve the credit for why Newport is so desired.”

Regarding orientation tools, Smith said younger visitors look ahead of their trip at TripAdvisor, a “Visit Newport” mobile app, Yelp for restaurants, AAA websites, and guidebooks. The visitors’ bureau has also invested a lot of money in transforming its own site for mobile devices.

Tourism was credited as the number one economic engine in Rhode Island, with three million visitors to Newport. When those numbers were criticized as being obsolete, Rep. Lauren Carson said from the audience that the state is working on updating that metric.

The panel held out Philadelphia and Colonial Williamsburg as cities with good models of interpretive centers.

Smith said, “Our mission is not to be an interpretative center; we feel good about being an information center. But we applaud any organization that would want to take on the mission of establishing an interpretive center.”

The third and final part of the panel conversations included Tom Goddard, chairman, Newport Historical Society; Edward Kane, trustee of the Redwood Library and The Preservation Society of Newport County; and Bart Dunbar, a Newport waterfront community leader and businessman. They briefly discussed exploring alternative locations for the visitors’ center and understanding its context.

Dunbar was unequivocal in his opinion that “the visitors center is in the right place, at Newport’s historic front door.”

Another voice from the audience, Lisette Prince, said, “Let’s not forget about the projected rise in sea level. That should be a major factor in where the visitors’ center is located, whether it stays in the same place or is moved.”

On that front, Smith revealed in his phone conversation that the CVB “is in negotiations with the city. As a tenant in a city building, we’re currently on a month-to-month lease. We’ve resided here since 1988. Typically, we enter into a five-year lease renewal, but not now. Plus, the city can ask us to leave with one year’s notice.”

So, what is the next step in this expansive conversation?

Fleming later shared with NTW, “There was a great generation of ideas at the Redwood. [Newport City Manager] Joe Nicholson has asked for a summary presentation of the forum. I’m hoping he’ll agree to have the city hold a public workshop.”

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