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Donna Perry: Being Small is RI’s Best Asset

Thursday, August 16, 2012


It’s been nearly four months since the state’s most misguided and costly business investment began to unravel in a painfully public way. But as the summer aftershocks from the collapse of 38 Studios begin to ripple into the coming autumn, a growing determination across a broad spectrum of interested parties to rewrite the script of how Rhode Island attracts business and markets itself seems to be palpably evident.

As the RI Foundation prepares to stage an intense, innovative 2-day brainstorming event in early September, a new blueprint has emerged from a group of seasoned warriors from the state’s fiscal and economic development policy trenches.

The plan, which calls for a complete redesign of the state’s economic development approach, has been crafted by veteran government finance advisor Gary Sasse, along with Scott Gibbs and Marcel Valois, who have had career stints both within the EDC and in state government economic development posts, and who now head up the Economic Development Foundation of RI, a non-profit real estate development firm.

Among the strengths of the Sasse and company proposal is what seems to be its recognition that the state’s small size can serve as a chief asset in luring company expansion and investment here, but only if the small scale of RI is emphasized correctly.

(Note of Disclosure: Gary Sasse is also a research advisor to the RISC Foundation, which is affiliated with the organization I serve, RISC)

The first major piece of the plan calls for basically disbanding the EDC as we now know it, and in its place, establishing an Office of Strategic Development and Economic Policy within the Governor’s office, with the goal of enabling the state to better project a more unified voice—and vision---to business prospects outside our borders. If the 38 Studios fiasco taught us any lessons, it would be the need to recognize our deficiencies in coordination and collaboration among various branches of state government that need to intersect with business development plans.

The second major piece of the blueprint seems to go to the heart of what is now a recurring statewide conversation about RI’s inadequately skilled workforce. There remains a notable disconnect in successfully transitioning students who emerge from the state’s public K-12 education system, into the state’s network of colleges and universities, both public and private, and further transitioning them into the workforce. The blueprint proposes to maximize the state’s higher education network in a more defined way than perhaps what’s been attempted in the past. It would build an economic data and research collaborative, a think tank, within the state colleges and university that would be solely devoted to RI specific data related to business sectors; job skill training and development needs; business burdens and costs, and would put it at the disposal of the new cabinet level Office of Strategic Development and Economic Policy. This strengthened attempt at coordinating research to economic development decisions could also serve to better inform decisions in K-12 curriculum development, for example, to improve grade school learning skills in preparation for a future in the workforce.

Lastly, the plan calls for the appointment by the Governor of a Board that could serve as an image consultant of sorts for the state’s economic development efforts, brining together individuals with both public sector and private sector seasoning who could influence the state’s brand marketing efforts, as well as oversee financial concerns. Though it can be argued that certain elements of the proposal have been tried before, the blueprint as a whole offers a new and important roadmap for where a redesigned economic development engine can travel.

A state that can boast it has an efficient and well supported economic development operation straight down the hall from the Governor’s desk and operates with the consistent and engaged presence of that Governor is a state that can offer less red tape, tighter inter-government department coordination and a stronger atmosphere for public-private financing collaboration. Use our own assets and use our small state advantages better, the plan seems to be saying.

Small is a defining characteristic of Rhode Island. Smaller entities can function with less red tape and less complexity; therefore they can boast that they function more efficiently. In approaching a new era in economic development, perhaps Rhode Island needs to think smaller. It could produce big gains down the road.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC, RI Statewide Coalition (http://www.statewidecoalition.com)



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