A bad development

By MARION DAVIS  |  April 22, 2009

Asked for his view, Carcieri said the state has made "huge investments" in infrastructure, citing as examples the new life sciences building at the University of Rhode Island and the intermodal station at T.F. Green Airport. And asked whether budget cuts and the resulting government staff cuts might get in the way of expediting business permits, another priority cited in the report, Carcieri said the real problem is a "bureaucratic" process, and that local officials are the bigger hindrance.

(The report casts blame on both state and local authorities and suggests imposing time limits for state and local permit reviews, with expedited local processes like the one created to approve affordable-housing developments.)

What about the EDC's focus: Should it aim big or small, look within the state or outside? Again, it depends on which line you read. The report says the EDC has a reputation for chasing "big fish" at the expense of small and mid-size local businesses, and it should change that. But it doesn't actually evaluate what the EDC does do with small businesses — such as the "Every Company Counts" program — and it says the EDC has failed to effectively market the state to the outside world, and a new "public-private partnership" is needed to do it better.

White, of the Chamber, said that's one of her top priorities: "It's absolutely essential that you market to the outside world," she said. "The competition is fierce . . . you need to have a very aggressive effort . . . I've been told that Rhode Island is not even on the map."

As for the industries the EDC should foster, the report is also contradictory. It says the EDC "should be careful to avoid the danger of labeling and misidentifying businesses and industry sectors, an activity which often leads to exclusion and discontent." But then, in the same paragraph, the report notes the "magnetic attraction" that clusters of similar businesses can exert, and it suggests that "groups like the Providence Geeks" be "encouraged and fostered," and new ones created.

One of the biggest criticisms of the report voiced around town was the many things it was missing — not just specifics, but perspectives. All nine members of the panel that drafted it were white, only one came from a "new economy" company — Stephen Lane of Item Group — and life sciences, technology, green energy, and academic research spinoffs barely came up.

Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, noted that the few companies that are still moving to Rhode Island and expanding here are going into urban areas, including mills that could benefit from reviving the historic preservation tax credit.

Tom Sgouros, who has been decrying the state's approach to the economic slump in his weekly R.I. Policy Reporter columns, said focusing so much on the EDC may itself be a mistake. Since its creation 15 years ago, he said, the EDC has functioned primarily as "corporate lobbyists," advocating for businesses' interests while much of what actually makes a difference in the economy, such as education, good roads and public transit, were handled by others. "A lot of the things the EDC does are just distractions," he said.

Yet a revamped EDC could make a positive impact, Sgouros said. It could play a bigger role in transferring technology from academia to local businesses that sorely need it, for example, and he agrees with the report that it's "high time" that the EDC hire an economist to conduct policy research and analysis.

"I said, 'What have you been doing? On what have you been basing your policy if not that?' "

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