Samsonite Mill

Creative Commerce & Small Business in Rhode Island

James Lucey

Enterprising Warren

A few things stick out when you look around the town of Warren.

For starters, you can’t go more than twenty feet without hitting a café or a bar. The old colonial houses straddle the streets with their steep, flat silhouettes. Enormous red brick mills jut out along the skyline. Even in one of the smallest towns in the state of Rhode Island, there are mills everywhere. They’re on the water, on Main Street, and tucked away in residential neighborhoods.

Like so many other Rhode Island towns, people came to Warren to make things. It’s a typical case of manufacturing in the Ocean State. Immigrants from across Europe came to find a better life in the burgeoning New England textile industry. As a result, population boomed, the economy grew, and immigrant workers fundamentally reshaped the social structure of the town. [1]

Today, Warren is undergoing something of a renaissance. Textile manufacturers have all but disappeared, but in the wake of absent industry, artists and entrepreneurs are filling up the vacant mills. It’s a trend that you can trace across Rhode Island. Small businesses are setting up shop and revitalizing their surrounding communities, and together they are creating an economy of creativity.

Town Wharf-01.jpg

Warren is undergoing it’s own small business renaissance

Repurposing our Mills

More than a century after the first wave of textile manufacturing transformed Warren, the brick mills are still standing. Some mills remain completely vacant while others find new tenants. The majority are either in transition, like the original American Tourister/Samsonite mill, or home to various new small businesses.

We at Portfoliobox got our start in a mill space in Pawtucket, where state and federal tax credits for artists as well as multi-use development policy for the old mills have brought in droves of creative, quirky small businesses. At the Lorraine Mills, the brick structure Portfoliobox used to call home, you can find everything from hand-blown glass to Paleolithic granola to screen printed shirts and posters. All this and more made the move to Warren a natural one.

Manufacturing a Change

Warren is no slouch in manufacturing terms. The internationally renowned Water Rower exercise machine, designed in RI in the 1980s, is still manufactured in Warren, with worldwide distribution. Food production is serious small business over at the Handkerchief Factory where Rhode Island-famous Tito’s chips and salsa are made as well as a decadent selection of desserts from Buckleberry Foods. There is also a certain manufacturer of premium packaging on Child Street.

Creativity Driving Commerce

It’s no secret the arts are booming in Warren. O&G Studios creates gorgeous hand crafted furniture that Vogue magazine has called “heirlooms of tomorrow.” The Imago Foundation for the Arts features ever-rotating installations from renowned artists and is always open to the public. You can see some of the best theatre in the state at 2nd Story Theater. Down on Market Street, you can catch a show at Fort Foreclosure, the studio of artist Will Schaff, nationally known for his impressive cover art for bands and musicians. In fact, the maker-artist community is so strong in Warren that several creatives got together to start an artist cooperative to sell their works; Made in Warren opened last year.

Cuisine Driving Creativity

As a scrappy up-and-comer on the famous Rhode Island cuisine scene, Warren might be the best food town outside of Providence. Eli’s Kitchen serves up crab beignets worthy of the angels in an intimate open kitchen atmosphere, while on the other side of town, Chomp has a handle on the artisanal beer and burger game. At the Square Peg, locals and out-of-towners bump elbows at the bar, and just up the street the Coffee Depot gives the East Bay its due caffeine fix. Go into any of these establishments and you will meet at least one artist, likely two dining together.

Old mill buildings are being repurposed in Warren and across the state

Keeping Small Business in the Smallest State

You can attribute the success of the Warren Renaissance to an active and involved community, who stood up for preservation over mega-developments. You won’t find a Wal-Mart or a Whole Foods in Warren, instead it’s a patch work of small businesses that provide the town’s commercial needs.

For towns like Warren, and indeed Rhode Island as a whole, the future of the economy is vested in the success of small businesses and working artists. Manufacturing made Little Rhody prosperous in its heyday and there are still valiant manufacturers supporting the state, but the hope for revitalizing our mill towns and main streets is firmly placed in creative small businesses.

[1] Baronas, Deborah. The Warren Mill Project. Warren Preservation Society, Warren, RI, 2010.

 

 

 

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