Can’t anybody here play this game?

Rhode Island remains trapped between economic distress and missed opportunities
By IAN DONNIS  |  May 21, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a very smart man, Ira Magaziner, who devised a 1000-page plan — dubbed the Greenhouse Compact — to reinvent Rhode Island’s flagging economy by using $750 million in public investment to seed the high-tech businesses and high-wage jobs of the future. Yet despite broad support across business and labor, voters resoundingly rejected the plan because of concerns about prototypical Ocean State insider dealing.

That was in 1984.

Magaziner went on to work in the Clinton White House and to become a prosperous consultant. Yet 24 years later, the need to reinvent Rhode Island’s economic infrastructure — which remains anemic compared with most of its neighbors in New England — is more urgent than ever.

With a crushing $434 million deficit looming for the next fiscal year, the situation is exacerbated by how Rhode Island is just one of nine US states in a recession.

To name a few key indicators, the state is shedding jobs and residents; infrastructure is crumbling (weight restrictions have been placed on a few bridges, including one on Interstate 95 in Pawtucket); and corruption remains a concern (as seen by the ongoing trial in US District Court of two former officials with drug-store giant CVS, one of the few large corporations headquartered here).

All in all, things haven’t been this dire locally since the credit union crisis of the early ’90s.

Rhode Island has long since shed its image as a smudge on the way to Cape Cod, and, as always, the state has some key advantages — including its location between Boston and New York — upon which to draw.

The seemingly intractable nature of the Ocean State’s money problems, however, has led Leonard Lardaro, a professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island, to aptly dub the state “Rhode Island and Sisyphus Plantations.”

The recurrent cycle is evident in a series of key contradictions:

• The state desperately needs economic development, but NIMBYism tends to stand in the way of capital improvements — a container port, airport expansion, and so on — that could generate jobs and related activity.

• Economic development officials envision an “innovation economy,” but students at the state’s decaying urban schools continue to under-perform.

• Perhaps most symbolically, Rhode Island’s smallness is seen as its catalytic “secret sauce” by Saul Kaplan, executive director of the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC), yet parochialism and tradition persistently preclude efforts to boost efficiency by consolidating and regionalizing state and local government.

In a worst-case scenario, Rhode Island’s bond rating agency could lower the state’s bond (currently “on watch”) one notch, posing significant additional costs.

It’s enough to make one wonder, as Jimmy Breslin titled his book about the 1962 New York Mets — one of the worst teams in baseball history — “Can’t anybody here play this game?” (Even by this historic standard of incompetence, Rhode Island compares poorly; the Mets unexpectedly became world champions seven years later, in 1969 — in less than a third of the time that has elapsed since voters rejected the Greenhouse Compact.)

So, will the state continue on its current path, taking the proverbial two steps forward and three steps back?

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