The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation's controversial decision to offer a $75 million loan guarantee to former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling's video-game company, 38 Studios, has become a prime issue on the campaign trail.
Gubernatorial candidates Lincoln Chafee and Frank Caprio are just two in a parade of candidates who have suggested the deal is too risky, holding it up as a symbol of the sort of poor economic stewardship they would jettison if elected.
Among the prime concerns: the $75 million bet on a single company represents fully 60 percent of the loan guarantees the EDC can dole out under the new $125 million Job Creation Guaranty Program, aimed at luring high-tech companies to Rhode Island.
But a close look at the origin of that program can substantially shift one's perspective on the deal: for better or for worse.
Governor Carcieri brought in Keith Stokes as EDC chief in January and the new leader quickly went about lobbying the legislature for a $50 million loan guarantee program aimed at attracting tech-sector companies. In March, Carcieri attended a fundraiser at Schilling's house for a film project, and got to talking with the pitcher about moving 38 Studios from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. Soon after, the company entered into talks with the House leadership.
Stokes, in an interview with the Phoenix, says it quickly became clear that 38 Studios' capital needs could not be met by any existing state programs. So he spoke with legislators about tacking an additional $75 million — in line with what the company was seeking — onto his proposed $50 million loan guarantee program. And voila, the $125 million initiative was born.
From Stokes's perspective, the history of the bill obviates one of the chief critiques of the 38 Studios loan guarantee. Sure, the $75 million guarantee for 38 Studios represents 60 percent of the available pot — but that pot would never have soared above $50 million if Schilling's company hadn't entered the fray.
The only problem with that rationale is that it suggests a large portion of the $125 million in guarantees was unofficially earmarked for Schilling's company in advance — without the knowledge of many of the legislators who voted for the loan guarantee program and now question the wisdom of the 38 Studios deal.
"It was not made clear to them that such a large chunk was going to be sent to one company . . . without a track record and without a product yet," says Nick Hemond, spokesman for Frank Caprio's gubernatorial campaign.
Stokes and Amy Kempe, the governor's spokesperson, say there was no guarantee that 38 Studios would get the $75 million loan guarantee. "Nothing was rubber stamped," says Kempe. "It wasn't a done deal when we passed the legislation, by any means." Indeed, Stokes says the EDC board thoroughly vetted 38 Studios, which is looking to set up shop in Providence.
But don't expect pols like House Finance chairman Steven Costantino, who sponsored the House version of the Job Creation Guaranty Program bill and is now running for mayor, to make the company's arrival a signature campaign issue.