"Small,” as in Rhode Island, was used a lot Friday and Saturday, as more than 300 gathered at the Rhode Island Convention Center to come up with ideas to turn the state’s economy around.
The mere fact that so many business, union, medical, non-profit and education leaders would devote a day and a half to identify ways to improve the state was heartening to Neil Steinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Foundation that sponsored the forum.
“We’re the only state where you can put 300 in a room and make it happen,” he said Saturday morning to people more casually dressed than they had been when they gathered there the day before.
When the Saturday program came to a close, Steinberg looked around and was thrilled to find so many were still engaged in animated debate.
“They’re not ‘all the usual suspects,’” he said of the group. He said he was surprised by how many returned on Saturday and their apparent commitment.
Pulling people together from all sectors of the community as an advantage of the state’s size was highlighted in breakout sessions to hear suggested plans. “Small,” in terms of thinking small, was also pegged as a negative attribute the state needs to overcome.
Conspicuously absent were elected officials and Steinberg wanted it that way. Yet, as Dale Venturini of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association observed as people streamed into the center Friday, “There is a lot of type A personalities in one room.”
She was right.
Many participants, talking about how best to market Rhode Island, attacked unemployment, the business environment, closing skill gaps, supporting and growing new business or helping start-ups, were adamant about getting their ideas across. And when the tables were called on to present their findings, more than one representative was often ready to take the microphone.
Yet they listened.
Sessions also focused on leveraging-maximizing sites, high potential and high impact sectors and “quality of place.”
Dr. Kathleen Hittner of Lifespan, and a Rhode Island Foundation board member, was excited by the positive attitude and the “can do” spirit. Gary Sasse was more sedate as people mingled and he sipped coffee and waited for things to start.
“I’m hopeful as always,” said Sasse, who has worked in government for years and is now at Bryant University. “It is always good to talk.”
He identified a lack of leadership as a state problem, adding that the solution is in the private sector and “that it is important for us to come together.”
David DePetrillo of the Rhode Island Commodores went into the session wanting to hear solutions. He felt those solutions would come from Rhode Island’s “real assets,” which he identified as being structural and cultural.
“This is a world class place,” said Robert Vincent of GTECH in one of the round table discussions about how to market the state. There were a few skeptics, but he listed Rhode Island amenities, including its restaurants and the arts, and the comparatively low cost of living. He identified public schools as a drawback that has many turning to private schools and the expense they present.
“We like being in Rhode Island,” he said, “The challenge is getting good people.”
Edward Mazze used North Carolina as an example of what this state is missing. A professor at the URI College of Business, Mazze said North Carolina has an environment where the business community assumes leadership in marketing the state. He said Rhode Island doesn’t know how to sell its successes; lacks the leadership; and hasn’t recognized what we are.
“We don’t realize that the engine is small business,” he said.
Edward Quinlan, executive director of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, went further. He said the state needs structural reform of government, starting with a constitutional convention that would give state senators four-year terms [house terms would remain at two years] and mandate a two-year budget that would serve to clarify the “blurred lines between government and politics.”
Listening to the exchange, Joe O’Connor of Rhode Island Public Radio concluded, “I love it here, it sucks.”
Unfazed, Mazze jumped in. “We need to know who we are … and cut out where government does everything,” he said.
As the larger group shared ideas from around the tables, Colin Kane of the 195 Redevelopment Commission said, “We don’t leverage what we’re good at, which is our size.”
Ideas abounded; from the creation of a statewide advocacy council to champions in each sector of the economy; getting out the word that the state is open to growth; and promoting the state proximity to Boston and New York.
Allan Tear of Betasprings, a company that serves as an incubator for new companies, got a round of laughs when he identified Rhode Island’s problem as, “we think we actually are an island.”
Hittner went for the positive as the discussion turned pessimistic. She agreed there are obstacles, but “we can be bold and brave and overcome them.”
Contacted Monday, a spokeswoman for the foundation said that they were still looking over scores of ideas and actions suggested over the two days.
A sampling of those ideas include:
The creation of a physical and intellectual hub, perhaps even using the “Superman Building” in Providence to bring together startup companies.
Pay people to work rather than paying them unemployment.
Reduce energy costs as a means of attracting new businesses to the state.
Speed-dating as a means of bringing entrepreneurs and venture capitalists together.
Formalization of business mentoring programs with tax advantages for businesses with internship programs.
Resurrect the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (RICIE).
Arnold Bromberg of Benny’s, who reserved comment on Friday, said Saturday that “Make It Happen Rhode Island” was worth the time.
“It can happen,” he said. “It’s got the right people.”
Now, he added, it’s a matter of execution.