Newport has built its downtown on its tourism, bolstered by visitors who are drawn here for its waterfront, its history, and its attractions.
Events like this week's America's Cup World Series and next month's Ocean State Tall Ships Festival serve to draw in thousands to our community, filling the streets and coffers of local merchants, tour operators, and restaurants.
Managing the influx of visitors can logistically be rather challenging. Ensuring that Newport remains a desirable place to live is an altogether different animal.
On paper, at least, City Hall has shown a tendency to view the line between business and residential areas as hard and fast. But if you talk to those who live in, or on the cusp of the business corridor, they'll likely tell you they can't see much of a difference between zoning delineations.
That much was clear during the city's most recent Zoning Board meeting. At the center of the debate was an application by the Newport Blues Cafe to use an existing parking lot as an outdoor patio, complete with a portable bar.
Neighbors – both from the immediate area, and from up Historic Hill – came out in force in the hopes that they might be able to stop the slow and steady march of noise and associated unruliness that accompanies many Friday and Saturday nights.
Perhaps Stephanie Osterborg said it best when she implored the board to consider the message that converting a parking lot into an outdoor bar would send to families considering investing in our community. She said, simply, families are being driven out of Newport.
It would seem, at least at a cursory glance, that indeed they are.
According to the most recent census data, Newport has been losing families at an alarming rate. In 1990, 56 percent of households in the city were made up of families, accounting for 6,298 of the city's roughly 10,600 households. By 2000, that number had dropped to 5,646, or 48 percent of total households. The most recent numbers show that today, just 4,933 households, or 46 percent, live in family households.
By comparison, 67 percent of households were comprised of families in Jamestown, while household families made up 62 of households of Middletown, 69 percent in Portsmouth, and 70 percent in North Kingstown.
s this a place where we want to encourage families to live, or is it a place where we want bars to have free reign for four months out of the year.
A few years ago, the administration made a concerted effort to crack down on party houses that had begun springing up in the Yachting Village, Fifth Ward, and Historic Hill. For the most part, they made remarkable progress.
In any tourist town, balancing the needs of businesses with those of year-round residents requires constant attention and reasoned common sense. While it might not be the purview of individual boards and commissions to tackle the problem of late night revelry, they're also not powerless. Indeed, more than most, the volunteers who serve the city on the municipal level can have a real impact on the quality of life in Newport for both businesses and residents.
It's hard not to be sympathetic toward employers such as the Quinns, who have only proven themselves to be good neighbors and good business owners.
However, as we saw on Monday, decisions that are made in accordance with the letter of an ordinance may not fit with the spirit of a neighborhood.
Aside from the residents, there are other businesses to also consider – be they those who might be negatively impacted, or those who might seek to take advantage of past precedent to push the envelope of what's acceptable to the city even further.
We should not act as if there is a wall between the homes and the people who live in the residential area just inches away.
Yes, areas like Lower Thames and Spring Street are zoned for commercial and limited business use. But they're also entwined in residential neighborhoods. Being able to live downtown, to leave the car in the driveway and walk to work, to dinner, or to the market, is attractive to a wide spectrum of people.
This, to many, is the beauty of Newport.
In the latest draft of the city's Comprehensive Land Use Plan, much emphasis is devoted to economic development. When it's approved, attracting businesses, and making Newport not only a place to work, but also live, will likely become a driving focus across City Hall.
To whit, in the city's FY2012-13 budget, City Manager Jane Howington has included a late addendum, reserving a line item for the position of Economic Developer.
We're on the right track. But let's not lose sight of the need to balance our economic needs with the need to attract and retain the young families that are so vital to our community.