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Guest MINDSETTER™ Aaron M. Renn: My First Impressions of Rhode Island

Thursday, January 10, 2013


I am an urban analyst who writes about state and local affairs and policy at my website The Urbanophile and elsewhere. I moved to Rhode Island about six months ago from Chicago. I am originally from Indiana, have lived in Indianapolis and Louisville (both similar in size to metro Providence), and have made thinking about Rust Belt cities the core of my work. I was eager to learn more about New England and Rhode Island, and am writing to share some initial impressions that have struck me since moving here.

The most important point is one that may seem minor: People here see themselves first as Rhode Islanders, secondly as residents of their town, and lastly (and faintly) as residents of metro Providence. Why is this important? And what does it mean?

The main units of the modern economy, as the Brookings Institution has noted, are metropolitan areas, not states. So state or town level thinking is the wrong frame for economic development. Also, thinking first of Rhode Island immediately makes this place seem very unique, since Rhode Island is so small. But if you use metropolitan Providence as your mental map, not only will you have the correct point of view economically, you’ll immediately notice that it isn’t very unique at all, but has many similarities to other smaller post-industrial regions.

Thinking about it this way, the basic problem of Providence (and by extension the rest of Rhode Island) becomes obvious: it is a small city, without an above average talent pool or assets, but with high costs and business-unfriendly regulation. Thus Providence will neither be competitive with elite talent centers like Boston, nor with smaller city peers like Nashville that are low cost and nearly “anything goes” from a regulatory perspective. There’s little prospect of materially changing either the talent/asset mix or the cost structure in the near term even if there was consensus to do so, which there isn’t. So expect struggles to continue, even if there’s a bit of lift from a change in national macroeconomic conditions.

That’s not to say nothing can be done. There is a lot that can happen even without political or cultural change, or some change in macro-economic trends that makes place like Providence come back into vogue. Pittsburgh suffered far worse during the steel collapse, but has come back. It took 30 years, however. This means real change is a long term game. Even today Pittsburgh has many legacy issues to work through. But its prospects look bright at present.

My preliminary thoughts would be as follows.

1. Change the mental model. Clearly the culture of New England is town/state oriented. That won’t change for most people. However, the leadership of the region needs to adopt a metro-centric mindset.

2. Understand the driving forces and right comparison regions. Armed with the new geographic model, the next step is to make sure you have a good understanding of the macro forces affecting the region. These include globalization and everything that goes with it, technological changes, demographic trends, etc. The key is to think broadly, not just within the state or New England. Most thinking I have seen to date is “inside the box” of Rhode Island with almost no reference to the outside world with the possible exceptions of Massachusetts or Connecticut. As Allan Tear put it recently, “Rhode Island is not actually an island.”

Also studies of how other similarly situated post-industrial regions have tried to transform themselves would be very useful. The global context and benchmarking can help create transformation strategies that will work. One can use as a case study, for example, the successful Indianapolis sports strategy. I’m not saying that Providence should copy Indy, but the idea of seeing how they found a strategy that worked for them, and why it worked, is what I am getting at.

If you don’t understand what’s happening to you or how others have tried to respond to similar circumstances, there’s little prospect for success. It’s critically important to understand and face the region’s strategic positioning head on and not sugar coat it away with platitudes. I have yet to see much analysis that puts the area’s problems in anything other than a local context.

3. Opt out of the system for change. Some of the most dynamic grass roots urban changes, ones that have attracted global attention, are taking place in Detroit. It might be one of the most creative urban places on earth at present. And it’s attracting serious talent from all over. Why? The collapse there has actually eliminated many of the barriers that prevent things from happening in other places. Want to do something in Detroit? Just go do it! In many ways Detroit is the New American Frontier. Detroit certainly has huge problems and a long way to go, but there are definitely many positive things going on there.

Detroit’s model certainly won’t fly here because the system still functions – and thank goodness for that! However, there’s a lesson to learn. Rather than tilting at windmills to try to reform Rhode Island politics, why not have those who are not part of the civic elite but have ideas about what to do just go do it without help from anyone else, or with only minimal assistance from the state? There are tons of inspiring stories from the “new grass roots” out there across America. Even in my limited time here I’ve come across many people doing interesting things “off the grid” as it were, which is certainly a positive sign. The tech industry is a perfect place to start since it requires few public sector resources.

The question people should be asking is: what can we do to start changing things right now without any help from anybody? It might be only a small win, but that starts positive momentum for change that can build over the years. It’s better to have a continuous stream of small victories than one mega-win followed by a lengthy drought. And “next big thing” type of thinking is a proven failure in cities across the country.

4. Leverage the unique assets we do have. This state has an incredible coast line. It also has legitimate world class tourists assets like Newport. I was stunned to see this when I got here. I had an idea about it, but the reality was far better than I expected. I’m sure this area is well known regionally, but there must be vast potential for expanding the travel and second home market here. There are other things like this that may not fundamentally change things, but can provide a boost. Just because I say metro Providence doesn’t have an above average collection of civic assets doesn’t mean real, amazing assets don’t exist.

I know this post sounds rather down on the city and state. But given that I’m talking about the economy, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Everybody knows the economy is bad and the area’s strategic positioning is poor.

But as a place to live, there’s a lot to enjoy about being here. One thing that has really surprised me is the people of Rhode Island. I come from the Midwest and the land of “Hoosier Hospitality.” I was thinking honestly it would be hyper rude and abrasive, like some stereotype of Boston. Yet the people of Rhode Island have been fantastic to me. And while the total talent pool (college degree attainment) is about average compared to peer cities, I’ve met some truly top notch people who would thrive in any city. The people of Rhode Island are really first rate.

The unique architecture like the old mills, and things like the seafood are also great. These are things I couldn’t get in the Midwest. To me, this is what makes Rhode Island of interest. Walking into a trendy bistro that could be anywhere or some such is of no appeal. I mean, I like that sort of stuff. But if that’s what I wanted I never would have left Chicago. I think that’s ultimately the key to state: to find the really unique things that it’s hard to get elsewhere. Mill architecture definitely one of them.

I’ve also gotten to experience a few of the “only in Rhode Island” moments, such as the DMV that takes MasterCard but not Visa. (I should quickly note my experience there was fantastic though). Or party pizza. These quirky things can be good, bad, or neutral, but they are the little cultural markers that make this a real and authentic place unlike any other, not just another piece of Generica.

In short, while Providence and Rhode Island are economically troubled to say the least, there’s a lot on offer here in terms of people and lifestyle. So while a fundamental turnaround may be a way off, there’s plenty good here to sustain residents along the journey to change.

Aaron M. Renn can be reached at [email protected].


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