Raimondo, Pryor make case to ride RI WAVE

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The familiar “wave” will soon be phased out on Rhode Islanders’ license plates. But some state leaders hope another is on the way.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, as part of her budget plan for the coming year, has unveiled a plan to invest in what her administration has dubbed the “Ocean State WAVE” – an acronym standing for workforce development, advanced industries and innovation, visitor attraction, and enterprise expansion and recruitment.

“Decline does not have to be our fate,” the governor writes in an introductory letter included with an outline of the plan. “Change won’t be easy or happen overnight, but I am optimistic. We must now begin to set ourselves on a path to greater prosperity.”

In a recent discussion of the WAVE at the State House, Raimondo and Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor characterized the plan as a series of strategic investments and tools meant to help train Rhode Islanders for better job opportunities and spur economic growth. To that end, the governor said she, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed “independently have the same priorities.”

“We’re starting from the same place,” she said.

Finding the needed balance within the budget to pursue the WAVE – and to invest in other areas, such as infrastructure and school construction – was a challenge, Raimondo said. She entered office facing a nearly $200 million deficit and an economy that continues to lag.

But after a campaign that zeroed in on the creation of middle-class jobs as a means of raising Rhode Island’s economic fortunes, the governor said the WAVE represents a vital first step.

“We have to deliver … This year has to be different,” she said. “We don’t have enough innovation-based jobs.”

Pryor – who has previously served as Connecticut’s education commission, Newark, N.J.’s deputy mayor for economic development and as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in New York City – is Rhode Island’s first commerce secretary. He leads the Executive Office of Commerce, established in 2014 and charged with coordinating economic development, business regulation, workforce development and housing.

“There’s a strength here that is unique,” he said of Rhode Island, referencing the “eagerness and volunteerism and optimism” he has witnessed since his arrival.

Pryor, like Raimondo, acknowledges there is no “magic bullet” to spur an economic revival in the Ocean State. But he said the various initiatives included in the WAVE would help rally existing resources behind a common goal of 21st-century growth.

“We have the makings of an innovation economy, but we have to build critical mass,” he said.

The workforce development component of the WAVE includes several pieces. It seeks to make the state’s workforce training system more employer-driven and performance-based; create partnerships between high schools, community colleges and businesses to help students pursue fruitful career pathways; create a “Wavemaker Fellowship” to reimburse student loan payments for graduates working toward careers in key sectors such as technology, engineering and design; preserve or produce up to 300 units of affordable housing for young workers and others; and launch Prepare RI, which would allow qualifying students to take post-secondary courses while in high school at no cost.

Pryor said the workforce development efforts would focus on “industry clusters,” with an emphasis placed on meeting the needs of industry while providing pathways for young people to pursue careers in those fields. The hope is to combat the “brain drain” of young people seeking opportunities outside the state and reverse the decline in the working age population.

“What we’re aiming to do is build an ecosystem in Rhode Island,” he said.

That focus is also seen in the pieces of the WAVE’s advanced industries and innovation component. The plan seeks to create a Small Business Assistance Program and Innovation Initiative that provides access to capital for growing businesses; establish an Innovation Voucher program allowing businesses to earn vouchers that can be redeemed for research and development aid from colleges and other institutions; provide grants to strengthen partnerships among companies in key sectors; and implement an Anchor Tax Credit, which would provide incentives for the state’s largest employers to draw their suppliers, affiliates and client companies to the Ocean State.

Pryor said despite the lingering bitterness surrounding the 38 Studios debacle, Rhode Islanders cannot “lose our nerve” when it comes to investing in industry.

“We have to get into the game, and we have to fight for Rhode Islanders in the regional economy,” he said.

In terms of visitor attraction, the WAVE plan calls for a major state tourism marketing campaign and an effort to promote the state to business leaders.

“We can do a lot better job of marketing,” Pryor said. “There’s such an array [of positive attributes] … It’s not a hard sell, but we owe it to Rhode Island to do the selling.”

The final component of the WAVE, enterprise expansion and recruitment, seeks the introduction of a job creation tax credit; the establishment of Fire Wave funds to spur major real estate developments in the 195 District and elsewhere; the creation of real estate tools, including tax credits, that encourage construction projects; the launch of a one-stop service and building permit initiative; and the establishment of an Infrastructure Bank and Main Street RI initiative, which would focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Pryor did touch on the proposal to build a new ballpark for the Pawtucket Red Sox on the former Interstate 195 land, which has generated much debate in recent weeks.

“We will evaluate it carefully,” he said. “It’s very important that we keep this treasurer team here in Rhode Island.”

Perhaps most central to Raimondo and Pryor’s message is that the various aspects of the WAVE – both those successful used in other states, and those developed more specifically for Rhode Island – must be viewed as a comprehensive package.

“It’s important that they’re all included,” Raimondo said.

“We are putting tools in the toolbox, and we’re laying tracks,” Pryor said.

For more information on the Ocean State WAVE, visit the governor’s website, www.governor.ri.gov.

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