Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2014
As the 2014 General Assembly session ended, CNBC released its annual Top States for Business rankings. It was not good news for the Ocean State. According to the report’s findings, Rhode Island finished last among the 50 states for the third time in the last four years. States were ranked in these 10 categories: cost of doing business, economy, infrastructure, workforce, quality of life, technology and innovation, business friendliness, education, cost of living and access to capital.
After the release of the scathing report, CNBC senior correspondent Scott Cohn caught up with Governor Chafee in Chicago, attending a regional Democratic Governors Association conference, who gave his thoughts to the report’s outcome. Rhode Island was on an upswing with the state putting funding into education, infrastructure and workforce development.
Reviving Up the State’s Economic Engine
Yes, as Chafee noted, a Rhode Island Senate staffer says that economic development was a priority on Smith Hill this year.
Gregg Parė, the chamber’s Director of Communication, says state lawmakers agreed with Chafee’s positive assessment of the progress made to make the state more competitive. “Many important components of the Senate’s Rhode to Work action plan to improve the skills of the existing workforce as well as the workforce of tomorrow were passed by the Assembly,” he noted.
Paré notes a centerpiece of the Road to Work plan was placing responsibility for coordination of workforce development with the Governor’s Workforce Board. Legislation was passed to accomplish this, ensuring that Rhode Islanders can access the training programs they need in a timely and effective way, he said.
“Additionally, the Jobs Development Fund was exempted from “indirect cost recovery,” which had directed a portion of the employer funded program for workforce development to the state. This provides an additional $1.2 million for worker training programs,” adds Paré.
Paré detailed some educational reforms that were addressed by lawmakers this year. The Board of Education was directed to seek lower cost but equally effective high school equivalency tests to the GED, and to reinstate a hardship waiver of fees for low-income test takers. This removes a potential barrier for obtaining an equivalency which can open doors to employment opportunities,” he says. Enacted legislation also provided more time for those receiving cash assistance to undergo training programs, and to provide professional development for high school counselors to ensure they are helping students as they enter today’s workforce. Passed legislation also helps communities transition to full-day kindergarten, a proven, effective way to better prepare students for success in school.
Paré says the newly enacted budget invests in initiatives the Senate has worked on for years which will have long-term benefits for the economy. “The Senate’s 2013 Moving the Needle report recommended reducing the corporate tax, which the 2015 budget reduces from 9 percent to 7 percent. At the same time, it shifts the method of corporate tax assessment to a single sales factor, which removes a disincentive for investing in jobs and property in Rhode Island. The budget also eliminates the cliff on the estate tax, and increases the exemption to $1.5 million.”
Summing up the legislative session, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said: “The budget invests in Rhode Island’s future. The reduction of the corporate tax rate and increase in the estate tax threshold help to make Rhode Island more competitive. The transportation infrastructure fund invests in the state’s roads and bridges. Our many initiatives in the area of job training will help the state’s economy continue to move in the right direction. I’m very confident that those initiatives will help students coming out of schools seeking employment as well as the state’s older workforce which is seeking employment.”
We Have More Work to Do
But, while it may have been a banner your for economic development reforms, Olon Reeder, President of Reeder Associates, a Southern New England based independent public relations and multi-media communications practice, calls on Rhode Island’s lawmakers to continue their focus on economic reform in next year’s session. More needs to be done, says the small businessperson, former public official and former award-winning media personality.
With the State of Rhode Island coming up with a new comprehensive economic policy early next year, the North Providence resident recently released his suggested economic development action agenda, as how to improve the state’s long term quality of life, through investing in people, communities and small businesses.
“We are at a critical crossroads where we must overcome our negative self attitudes and start taking actions ourselves if we all want our state and our lives to become successful,” says Reeder.
In his economic platform, Reeder calls for tying lifelong education to economic growth. “Brain power is a key element driving worldwide demands and economic activity today, through the convergence of non stop knowledge, creative economy, enterprise and innovation, art-design connections, which all start with lifelong learning,” he says.
Reeder says personal empowerment creates the environment for change “Empowerment encourages, and develops the skills for, self-sufficiency, giving people the abilities and knowledge that will allow them to overcome obstacles in life or work environment and ultimately, help them develop within themselves or in the society,” he says.
Reeder observes that companies are constantly replacing full-time employees and now relying upon independent contractors, where people who once counted on a steady pay check are now being left to fend for themselves in a hyper-competitive self employed market.
Based on 2011 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Rhode Island, there re over 73 thousand self-employed contributing over $3 billion annually to the state’s economy. Most self-employed are hired out of necessity, are done so locally and through word of mouth. Because freelancers depend so much on self promotion to get their jobs, they must focus on the local markets, along with showcasing their diverse personal talents, marketing their skills to business owners in their community, along trying to compete with others for opportunities.
Reeder recognizes the importance of valuing our places, spaces and communities. “More than ever, people must be connected to where we live, work, play, stay and travel. People expect places and spaces they interact with daily to be vibrant, active, socially appealing, culturally stimulating and help them in improving their quality of life, especially with their physical and mental health,” he says.
Reeder notes active living communities provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to engage in routine daily physical activity, he says, like pedestrian and bicycle friendly design, access to intermodal transportation, mixed use development, ample recreation, walkable neighborhoods, access to fresh and healthy foods and commerce centers.
“Our economic revitalization is relevant to healthy and sustainable communities because active living communities encourage individuals to be more physically active, improving health by lowering citizens’ risk for health conditions, adds Reeder. “Active living communities create enhance quality of life, attract business and knowledge workers, and contribute to ongoing economic development,” he says.
Reeder noted that technology is a must, as people are now “required” to have 24/7 365 access to the Internet and must now communicate through social media to live, work, and transact personal activity, he calls for providing everyone with free online access “as a necessity of our 21st century lifestyles.”
Finally, Reeder thinks “Demand Driven Experiences” are necessary for not only reinventing our state’s manufacturing, but in changing our self attitudes about how Rhode Islanders see themselves, ultimately affecting expectations others may have about the perception of Rhode Island as the worst place for business.
“Because people no longer buy things for their personal benefit, they want enhancements to fulfill missing elements of their lives,” adds Reeder, noting that experiences are crucial for businesses and locations as a branding and marketing tool, especially with efforts in Rhode Island attracting people to live and travel here for our entertainment, food and lifestyles.”
“Using our experiences to effectively promote market and give an iconic brand, we must also stay true to the “real Rhode Island,” to our proud independent and working class heritage, the ethnic and cultural diversity in our state, and preserving our unique natural resources,” he says.
State lawmakers must be commended for their successful efforts to slash regulation and enact laws to make Rhode Island a more business-friendly place to operate. At press time, Reeder, a Rhode Island native, whose family has been very prominent in Southern New England for over four generations in small business, real estate, building contracting and public service, continues his efforts to get his voice heard by General Assembly leadership, state policy makers, business groups, even gubernatorial candidates.
Hopefully, they will choose to closely listen to Reeder and others who may well hold the keys to fixing Rhode Island’s sluggish economy.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care, medical issues, and the economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.