But URI’s Lardaro says the economic development document is too general in its prescriptions.
To be sure, the current litany of budget-related woes overshadows some of the success stories taking root in Rhode Island. In one such case, the EDC helped in 2005 to launch the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC), which is charged with fostering research and development in the state.
STAC co-chair Jeff Seemann, dean of URI’s College of Environment and Life Sciences, notes the caveat of the state’s current problems, but he nonetheless pronounces himself “really optimistic” about Rhode Island’s future.
“I think we’re really doing a lot of the correct things, and it’s really been a question of establishing priorities,” Seemann says, pointing to how STAC is catalyzing new opportunities and relationships, helping, for example, to attract a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health grant last year for a Brown University-Rhode Island College research team working on testicular cancer.
Meanwhile, there are such entrepreneurial newcomers as Lincoln-based Neurotech, which is working to develop sight-saving therapeutics for chronic eye diseases, and whose technology was incubated at Brown.
In January, the company announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Cumberland, and to substantially increase its employment, from 21 workers, over the next three years. Although Neurotech had an opportunity to move to Massachusetts, it chose to stay here, largely because of the EDC, says CEO and president Ted Danse. When it comes to state officials, he adds, “I’m impressed with their desire and flexibility to really try to make things happen.”
Similarly, Insuremytrip.com of Warwick one of the state’s largest dot.coms — and whose employment has grown over the last five years to 42 employees, from three — moved here from New York in 2003, because the company’s management liked the quality of life in the Ocean State.
“I think we are starting to reinvent Rhode Island and Providence,” says Jim Grace, the company’s CEO. “I think there’s tremendous focus at the government level and at the private sector level.” Even five years ago, he says, “there wasn’t this type of focus on our type of business — high-wage, high-growth businesses.”
As encouraging as these developments are, it’s clear that Rhode Island needs a lot more of them to thrive. And Brown University’s West echoes Lardaro in assessing the EDC’s Economic Growth Plan.
“I don’t really think it goes far enough in outlining what we need to do,” says West, who after more than 20 years at Brown is leaving to take a post with the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “The state needs major surgery to position itself for the long run,” not just with economic development, but by making the delivery of public services more efficient.
Where the rubber meets the road
When the General Assembly takes up the gargantuan budget deficit for the next fiscal year, there will be the customary protests and ideological battles.
People such as Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, will call Rhode Island’s tax climate the greatest impediment to economic growth. If some upper income residents could be lured back “by a more favorable tax policy,” she says, “it could add to the tax base, even one percent.”