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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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Haiti remains a third world country because thats the way the government in power WANTS it. The Providence metro area is the way it is, for the same reason. There is no will here to change anything that would have any effect on status quo. Over priced pasta and Newport mannsions are nice, until they can't afford the taxes.

Comment #1 by David Beagle on 2013 01 10

Rhode Island and Minnesota are the 6th and 7th most taxed states. But Rhode Island's future is far worse than Minnesota's. Our debt and pension liability is 13% of GDP. Minnesota's is 2.9% Rhode Island won't grow its way out of this debtr because we have such a horrible business enviroment. Sure its bad, but its gonna get worse.

Comment #2 by george pratt on 2013 01 10

You nailed it on the limited, provincial perspective of RI's leadership.

You missed a hugely important and unique asset: the presence of a leading world art school and a community of talented emerging artists and a truly outstanding live theater scene.

You missed a regional liability: the absence of same sex marriage rights. RI acts like a clown in trying to attract hi tech and financial services firms but the firms in these industries, in this region, NY, and California, especially the larger firms, were among the first to grant partnership benefits to gay people. Gay marriage rights are important to their corporate cultures and their human resources policies. This is a good example of RI's provincial perspective.

Comment #3 by John McGrath on 2013 01 10

I also moved here from Chicago. What pleased me about RI is the lifestyle. In Chicago, people mostly shopped and ate in restaurants. (Even our friends there laugh about this.) when I moved here, I stopped shopping. I took day trips and weekend trips, I bought a kayak, I took walks in interesting places, I learned to sail. When I met my friends for our every-five-years birthday weekend, I realized I had the same "stuff" with me that I'd had five years before. (I took notes from them and updated a few things.) I realized I had become a doer, not a shopper. What RI has to sell is an amazingly layered lifestyle. But that has to be balanced with the expense of living here. Now that my husband and I are moving toward retirement, we are realizing that living six months and one day in a lower-tax state can just about pay for that second home. The reverse certainly wouldn't be true!

Comment #4 by Pam Thomas on 2013 01 10

This state will continue to be an economic and financial disaster as long as we have a brainwashed electorate that keeps voting in political hacks like Cicilline and Chafee who keep perpetuating this grossly incorrect notion that socialism and political correctness will save everything and that fiscal responsibility and restraint is unnecessary. Even our neighbors to the north in Boston are intelligent enough to elect people who are savvy enough to understand that you can't overtax a city's residential population and business sector and expect either to flourish.

Comment #5 by Russ Hryzan on 2013 01 10

mr. McGrath,

Don't fret, gay marriage will eventually make it to Rhode Island. Although with Paiva-Weed returning McCaffrey to chair the judicial oversight commitee might stop it from happening this year. Companies still won't come to RI. There are plenty of states with marriage equality that don't hamstring companies as much as RI does.

Comment #6 by george pratt on 2013 01 10

I always felt that summer and beach rentals in South County and Westerly would be an ideal competitor for places on Long Island and the Jersey Shore. With the destruction of Superstorm Sandy the area would seem poised to become a new destination for renters. I'm not sure Chambers or governments need to do much of anything. Individual landlords might do themselves a favor by posting on property sites or craigslist in New York.

Comment #7 by Steve Jones on 2013 01 10

Thank you for the comments.

@John McGrath, Brown and RISD are great, but this is exactly what I meant when I said the region does not have above average assets. Practically every community has one or two world class assets they can point to. Cleveland can point to the Cleveland Clinic for example. Or Cincinnati to a huge corporate presence of companies like P&G. Every city can tell a good story on assets. So while certainly one should look to leverage those assets, they will not likely distinguish Providence in the marketplace.

Nor are they likely to change the material trajectory of the city. If Yale can't save New Haven, I find it difficult to believe Brown or RISD will save Providence.

Comment #8 by Aaron Renn on 2013 01 10

I have posted about this before. I think I am just going to keep writing about it because I never seem to get a response or see anything actually happen. I don't understand why people that consistently write negative things about our leadership never back up their rants with any action? If you don't agree with the those in charge why not go to city council meetings, write letters and e-mails to your reps, call them or go sit in their offices to complain in person. Get people mobilized to continue those efforts as a community or run for office yourself. I don't think people realize how many obstacles there are to change when you are actually in charge and people will find that leading is harder than they think. Then again, sitting in front of your computer and complaining to a bunch of people that agree with you isn't going to change anything.

Comment #9 by Steve Jones on 2013 01 10

steve jones.... i ahve tried and i can tell you its mostly a waste of time.

the fact is that there are a lot of power hungry and greedy people making decisions that have absolutly nothing to do with whats good for the state.

example - pay day loan reform ---- this was shot down by DEMOCRATIC leadership and a lobbyist that was a former DEMOCRATIC leader.

i have seen so many people try... the peopel in power just wnat power and not whats good for the state.

Comment #10 by jon paycheck on 2013 01 10

It’s always good to get an “outsider’s” perspective of what we live everyday.

You mention leadership. One thing you MUST realize is that RI has none. Zero, natta, zilch. Most of the RI population (I know this is a strong term, but accurate) hate the people who are pretending to by RI’s leadership. These people are all about getting “their’s”. They’re worried about their next payoff, back door deal, embezzlement scheme, or union contract. Not a single person in the state house or general assembly has a single concern for the citizens of RI, or their best interests in mind.

You mention the fact that we consider ourselves from Rhode Islanders and not Providence. This is because Providence is a cesspool of criminal activity, both on the streets and in public office. WE don’t want to be associated with this filth.

Many of the points you’ve made make sense. However, RI is not about making sense. Anyone with ANY common sense has moved away, trying to move away, or is planning to move away.

Comment #11 by pearl fanch on 2013 01 10

@ pearl fanch – Your negative comments are exactly was Aaron referring to, which makes Rhode Island out as being unique or special. It isn’t—other than having to do with its size and possibly high taxation.

Other than journalist perception, Rhode Island ranks in the bottom third of states for actual corruption. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/weekinreview/14marsh.html?_r=0

Rhode Island is #6 for highest taxes in the country, but another six neighboring states are also in the top ten, including CT, MA, ME, NY, NJ, and PA. So high taxes might have something to do with being a northeastern state.

If Providence is such a cesspool, you probably would whine a bit, if the city vanished along with the roughly 90,000 jobs that it provides for the state and metropolitan region, which yes includes Massachusetts and Connecticut, which is the point “Providence” is not just a city or a county, but its first and foremost a metropolitan region that competes with other metropolitan regions from around the country and world.

Comment #12 by Peter Brassard on 2013 01 11

I wasn't being negative.
I was being honest and accurate.

If it sounds negative, then the state is in a state of negativity.
It needs to change.
Who's going to change it? The democrats that have been in power for over 70 years? The unions, that own the democrats?

Explain to me WHO will change things, because I want to be positive about things around here.

Comment #13 by pearl fanch on 2013 01 12

Aaron, as a native of RI, I too traveled the country to experience what the other areas were like. People in the mid-west were far friendlier than the east coast. There has always been a coldness once you pass the mountains coming to New England. Major urban areas like Chicago and LA will also show the coldness but nothing like New Englanders. RI appears to suffer with an over abundance of illegals living here and taking advantage of the give-aways. This is a major drag on the economy.
Our political leaders in this state just don't get it. Previous posters have commented correctly that the electorate continue to return the same tired political hacks that have done nothing to improve the economic opportunities of this state. They continue to pander the public unions.
I personally think to get this state moving, you need to cut the wasteful spending, lower the taxes on small businesses and make RI a right-to-work state. These publc unions have been a major drag on this economy with the excessive taxation they endorse for their benefits.

Comment #14 by Gov- stench on 2013 01 16

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