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John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Potholes - More Than Holes in the Road

Tuesday, April 08, 2014


Every Rhode Islander rightly hates potholes because every Rhode Islander has banged through so many of them. As we all know, they’re everywhere this time of year, and to make matters worse, a lot of them reopen after being “fixed” by road crews. But no one in the Ocean State hates them more than Karl Wadensten. To Karl, they represent more than just holes in the road. To the owner of VIBCO in Wyoming, Rhode Island, they are a symbol of this state’s failings, and a reflection of our own cynicism about our state. It’s as if we console ourselves with the thought, Of course we have potholes and terrible roads and bridges – this is Rhode Island.

Karl, however, is not a resigned Rhode Islander. On the contrary, he loves his state and wants to see it succeed. He abhors our passivity and tolerance of things the way they are. If you haven’t yet heard of Karl Wadensten, he’s the only board member of the former RI Economic Development Corporation to have sized up 38 Studios for the risky venture it was and to have voted against it.

Karl’s refusal to go along with the rush to throw money at 38 Studios made him an instant white knight to all Rhode Islanders who care about honesty and accountability in our government. He still serves on the board of the newly formed RI Commerce Commission, guarding the taxpayers’ interest against another pie-in-the-sky insider deal (don’t think it can’t happen again).

He also has a solution to the pothole problem that he wants every city and town in the state to take advantage of. Karl’s company is a manufacturer of industrial vibration equipment. His 100 employees produce equipment that vibrates everything from concrete to chocolate.

VIBCO manufactures a pothole patch roller that he is offering free to every Ocean State community’s public works department to help fix its potholes. And not just temporarily, as happens using the traditional “throw and go” method, which often results in the pothole opening up again – sometimes in the same season – but to stay fixed for years. While using a VIBCO Pothole Patcher takes a road crew a bit longer to repair than the conventional method, it costs less. A VIBCO patched pothole stays patched.

To date less than half of Rhode Island communities have taken up Karl’s offer, but the company keeps plugging away in its zeal to fix the state’s pothole problem and demonstrate pride of place. If a community accepts one of VIBCO’s rollers it can expect a request to have the mayor or town manager come out and watch the pothole roller in action; Republican gubernatorial candidate Mayor Allan Fung actually worked the machine on a Cranston street as Karl stood by. With the job completed, the crew and the mayor chanted, “Rhode Island No 1. Rhode Island No. 1!”

Karl outspokenness and enthusiasm for fixing Rhode Island has naturally led people to ask him to run for governor. Recently, he said no. I get asked this question too. Voters tired of professional politicians see successful, activist business leaders as outside change agents for good. If they have a long enough memory they remember Bruce Sundlun, who turned out to be a very good governor. CEOs know how to get thing done, but that doesn’t mean that they also have good political instincts, which is why so few throw their hat – and every shed of privacy along with it – into the ring. Besides, we have companies to run.

Politics is not business, as much as some of us on the private sector side of the equation would sometimes like to see government be run like a business. The two are different realms of thought, action and responsibilities. But business leaders are vital to the political process because they have a lot of skin in the game. Businesses large and small all want the same things: clean and accountable government, with less unnecessary government interference, and more focus on trying to do things differently once in a while, rather than filling potholes with a public sector indifference as to how long they will stay that way.

John Hazen White, Jr. is President and CEO of Taco, Inc. in Cranston and is the founder of Lookout RI.


Related Slideshow: 7 Strategies for Rhode Island Economic Development in 2014

What will it take to move the Rhode Island economy forward in 2014?  GoLocal talked with elected officials, candidates, and leaders for their economic development plans in the coming year. 

Below are key elements of the economic priorities for Governor Lincoln Chafee, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, gubernatorial hopefuls General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Ken Block, and RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity's Mike Stenhouse.  

Prev Next

Governor Lincoln Chafee

"My goal is to have the state continue to focus on the fundamentals.  We will invest in education, workforce development and infrastructure , and provide aid to  cities and towns to lessen the burden on property taxpayers.  I’m confident that these investments and our focus on the basics will allow Rhode Island to exceed Moody’s predictions.”
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Speaker Gordon Fox

"Among the many pieces of legislation the House will address will be issues of higher education affordability, expanding apprenticeship opportunities, and offering help to our manufacturers.  We will also look closely at our tax structure to make sure we are competitive with our neighboring states, including the corporate tax and the estate tax, and I will carefully review the recommendations of the commission studying our sales tax.”

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Senate Pres. Paiva-Weed

Greg Pare, spokesperson for the Senate President, said that the Senate is planning to issue recommendations soon on workforce development initiatives to address the skills gap among Rhode Island job seekers.

"An example of a proposal anticipated in that report is the elimination of state’s Indirect Cost Recovery on the Job Development Fund, which is about $1.2 million this year. Those funds would be directed towards job training and skills development programs to provide immediate impact and help workers gain the skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy."

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Gen. Treasurer Raimondo

"To grow our economy, we need to make Rhode Island a leader in manufacturing again.  Great things can happen at the intersection of government, higher education, and the private sector.  Rhode Island is lucky to have thriving institutions in each of these three sectors, and we need to foster collaboration among them to find solutions to our challenges, and spark our economy.  

By promoting partnerships in high-growth areas, [Rhode Island Innovation Institute] will help grow our manufacturing base, and create new, high-quality jobs."  

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Ken Block

"First, we need to fix Rhode Island’s broken Unemployment Insurance program. The state’s Unemployment Insurance tax, paid by employers, is ranked worst in the country by the Tax Foundation. It is one of the factors that makes Rhode Island an uncompetitive place to do business. Also, it is inherently unfair that a large group of businesses are effectively subsidizing the payrolls of a small group of businesses who misuse the system. There is a simple change to state law that can fix this problem."

"Rhode Island’s temporary disability tax (TDI) is broken, and places an unnecessarily high tax burden on Rhode Islanders. This tax, paid for by employees, will be reduced by changing the way we manage the program. As Governor, I will substantially reduce the cost of purchasing this insurance by requiring that Rhode Island’s program adhere to national norms."

"To best encourage new job creation, I propose the following tax incentive: exempt from future capital gains taxes any new investments in Rhode Island-based businesses. This change would create a powerful incentive for investors who are deciding where to locate a new business, or where they relocate an existing one. This proposal has the potential change the economic playing field for Rhode Island."

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Minority Leader Newberry

“It would be overly ambitious to set being #1 as a goal right now, but we think 25, the middle of the pack, is a reasonable goal to set, one we think we should pursue, and one we can achieve,” said Newberry. "One of the initiatives is a requirement that every bill receive a fiscal evaluation before it can be heard by committee, better insuring that legislators know the real cost of the legislation they are acting on."

"Another proposal would exempt social security income from RI state income tax, making Rhode Island more tax-friendly for our seniors and keeping them here rather than migrating to more tax-friendly states."

“Strong action is way overdue here. Nearly 60% of Rhode Islanders now believe that the state is headed in the wrong direction. We think they’re right, and our central goal is to get it turned around."

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Mike Stenhouse

"As part of the Center's 2014 Prosperity Agenda we recommended that the state:
Repeal or rollback of the state’s regressive sales tax; or the requirement that families have no choice on what schools best educate their children; or punitive estate taxes that drive wealthy people to other states; or restrictions on out-of-state companies to sell health insurance in RI; or the minimum franchise tax, which stifles entrepreneurship; or corporate welfare, to level the playing field; or even renewable energy mandates that drive up costs for every family and business …"

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