Every Rhode Islander rightly hates potholes because every Rhode Islander has banged through so many of them. As we all know, they’re everywhere this time of year, and to make matters worse, a lot of them reopen after being “fixed” by road crews. But no one in the Ocean State hates them more than Karl Wadensten. To Karl, they represent more than just holes in the road. To the owner of VIBCO in Wyoming, Rhode Island, they are a symbol of this state’s failings, and a reflection of our own cynicism about our state. It’s as if we console ourselves with the thought, Of course we have potholes and terrible roads and bridges – this is Rhode Island.
Karl, however, is not a resigned Rhode Islander. On the contrary, he loves his state and wants to see it succeed. He abhors our passivity and tolerance of things the way they are. If you haven’t yet heard of Karl Wadensten, he’s the only board member of the former RI Economic Development Corporation to have sized up 38 Studios for the risky venture it was and to have voted against it.
Karl’s refusal to go along with the rush to throw money at 38 Studios made him an instant white knight to all Rhode Islanders who care about honesty and accountability in our government. He still serves on the board of the newly formed RI Commerce Commission, guarding the taxpayers’ interest against another pie-in-the-sky insider deal (don’t think it can’t happen again).
He also has a solution to the pothole problem that he wants every city and town in the state to take advantage of. Karl’s company is a manufacturer of industrial vibration equipment. His 100 employees produce equipment that vibrates everything from concrete to chocolate.
VIBCO manufactures a pothole patch roller that he is offering free to every Ocean State community’s public works department to help fix its potholes. And not just temporarily, as happens using the traditional “throw and go” method, which often results in the pothole opening up again – sometimes in the same season – but to stay fixed for years. While using a VIBCO Pothole Patcher takes a road crew a bit longer to repair than the conventional method, it costs less. A VIBCO patched pothole stays patched.
To date less than half of Rhode Island communities have taken up Karl’s offer, but the company keeps plugging away in its zeal to fix the state’s pothole problem and demonstrate pride of place. If a community accepts one of VIBCO’s rollers it can expect a request to have the mayor or town manager come out and watch the pothole roller in action; Republican gubernatorial candidate Mayor Allan Fung actually worked the machine on a Cranston street as Karl stood by. With the job completed, the crew and the mayor chanted, “Rhode Island No 1. Rhode Island No. 1!”
Karl outspokenness and enthusiasm for fixing Rhode Island has naturally led people to ask him to run for governor. Recently, he said no. I get asked this question too. Voters tired of professional politicians see successful, activist business leaders as outside change agents for good. If they have a long enough memory they remember Bruce Sundlun, who turned out to be a very good governor. CEOs know how to get thing done, but that doesn’t mean that they also have good political instincts, which is why so few throw their hat – and every shed of privacy along with it – into the ring. Besides, we have companies to run.
Politics is not business, as much as some of us on the private sector side of the equation would sometimes like to see government be run like a business. The two are different realms of thought, action and responsibilities. But business leaders are vital to the political process because they have a lot of skin in the game. Businesses large and small all want the same things: clean and accountable government, with less unnecessary government interference, and more focus on trying to do things differently once in a while, rather than filling potholes with a public sector indifference as to how long they will stay that way.