Job creation, coastline development and educating a skilled workforce were major topics at Monday evening’s economic summit hosted by the Rhode Island Senate at the Quonset “O” Club. This year’s summit focused specifically on development of the state’s ports, and the resulting economic stimuli.
“I believe our ports are the key to our state’s economic success,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who recounted Rhode Island’s maritime history, citing it as the roots of the state’s economy.
Today, Quonset Point is home to 6,000 employees, but Senator William Walaska, co-chair of the Joint Legislative Commission studying the state’s ports, said Rhode Island’s valuable waterfront has the potential to create even more jobs.
“The QDC has done a great job developing Quonset, but we’re trying to enhance it,” he said. “Our ports will have the potential to become much greater transport hubs and to employ Rhode Islanders.”
John Holmander, vice president of the Virginia Class Program at Electric Boat, said the company currently employs 2,300, with hundreds from Rhode Island.
“Rhode Island’s ports are an important part of the state’s economy,” he said.
He discussed Rhode Island’s current economic standings in comparison to neighboring states, Massachusetts and Connecticut. He pointed out Massachusetts’ and Connecticut’s unemployment rates (6.8 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively) and average annual wages ($53.7K and $51.9K, respectively.) Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is higher than its neighbors at 10.8 percent, and average annual wage is lower at $45,900.
“To me, these states should serve as a benchmark, and we’re lagging behind,” he said.
Holmander pointed out that Rhode Island not only needs more jobs, but more high-paying jobs.
“We not only need to put emphasis not on the job itself, but the average wage,” he said.
To get those jobs, like at Electric Boat, Holmander said the people he hires need specific skill sets but not necessarily a college degree.
“When I got out of school in the 1970s, the one thing I wanted was a job,” he said. “Not everybody is college-bound, and we need to make sure that we work with everyone to increase employment.”
Walaska said the ports, with proper development, would offer Rhode Islanders more job opportunities than “our fine airport in Warwick.”
“We need to develop a strategic plan focused on job creation,” he said.
But Holmander pointed out that the state doesn’t just need development of the ports, it needs qualified workers.
“You can bring in the assets, but it takes people to make it happen,” said Holmander.
Jeff Grybowski, chief administrative officer of Deepwater Wind, talked about another form of job creation: offshore wind farms.
“Wind is where the energy future, globally, is headed,” he said. “More directly, it presents a tremendous opportunity for Rhode Island.”
Currently, Deepwater Wind has 10 employees, but Grybowski said the company hopes to expand, using Rhode Island as their home base.
“We made a commitment to make Quonset our manufacturing hub,” he said.
And Grybowski said New England is the perfect place to harvest and utilize wind energy. He displayed a map of wind speeds off the coasts of the United States. Some of the strongest winds were in New England, which Grybowski called the “Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.”
Not only is wind easily harvested in New England, he explained, but the northeastern coastal states require the most energy.
“Good luck trying to build a new power plant in the Hamptons or in the suburbs of Boston,” he said. “It makes offshore wind a very logical energy resource for this region.”
Currently, there is a 30-megawatt wind farm on Block Island, but Grybowski said the magnitude of offshore wind farms would have to increase dramatically in order to better compete with foreign countries – the United Kingdom already has wind farms totaling 2,100 megawatts in power.
“It’s a $5 billion investment for a 1,000 megawatt wind farm,” he said. “But it creates roughly 1,000 jobs.”
Geir Monsen, vice president of Sea Freeze, pointed out areas of concern for his business, specifically federal regulations he feels unnecessary and prohibitive to business.
Monsen said homeland security measures often make it cheaper to outsource goods to foreign countries for shipping. He said it costs less money for him to ship goods first to Korea and then to Alaska than to ship from Washington State to Alaska.
He also said stringent security measures at ports in Rhode Island are wasteful.
“To think of Providence or Davisville as a target of terrorism is wishful thinking at best,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Monsen then harped on federal regulations protecting butterfish, which he insists are not a threatened species.
“If I could get the federal government to open up butterfish [to fishing] again, it could mean thousands of jobs for Rhode Islanders,” he said.
And well-paid jobs, too, according to Monsen.
“The crews on our boats make between $100,000 and $300,000 a year,” he said, eliciting some raised eyebrows and looks of surprise from the senators in attendance.
Walaksa said it was good to hear of all the current activity and possible future endeavors at the state’s ports. He briefly highlighted the recommendations his commission devised, including things like public and private partnerships and honing in on government coordination in respect to the ports.
“Port growth needs more attention,” he said. “A single entity should be charged with the development of the port.”
He also suggested that Rhode Island form a collaboration with sister ports in other parts of the country, offering southern ports that may want northern collaborators as a viable option.
Walaska said his goals were to “develop and maintain port infrastructure,” while partnering with the Chafee administration and the Economic Development Corporation to create more than 1,000 new jobs.