Olon Reeder’s Fix for the State’s Ailing Economy

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 hweissri@aol.com.

 

Fund the Historic Tax Credit Program

Published in Pawtucket Times, June 13, 2014

With November’s election cycle looming, state lawmakers are moving quickly to finish the people’s business. Once the session ends they will begin their political campaigns to garner votes to retain their seats. .Yesterday evening the House began its floor debate on the House Finance Committee’s $8.7 billion 2015 budget proposal. At press time, this columnist has no knowledge of the outcome. But, when the dust settles late Thursday evening, if a budget amendment to fund the HTC program is defeated or even if supporters are successful in getting one passed, the Senate chamber becomes the next battle ground to fund the tax credit program.

Last week, the House Finance Committee declined to recommend funding for this program, despite Governor Chafee’s inclusion of $52 million for the Historic Tax Credit (HTC) program in his FY 2015 Budget proposal. As a result, Grow Smart Executive Director Scott Wolf and his fellow Historic Tax Credit advocates are running a full court press to push House and Senate leadership to include funding for the popular economic-development and neighborhood-revitalization program in the 2015 Budget.

In the lobbying blitz, Wolf is telling lawmakers and everyone who will listen that the HTC program has successfully transform older cities and towns in the Ocean State, by spurring reinvestment, revitalization, and job generation. These programs provide an incentive in the form of a tax credit, to property owners to renovate old historic buildings. These state credits can be and often are paired with the federal historic preservation tax credit to renovate commercial properties.

Historic Tax Credit – Great Economic Development Tool

It’s a success in the Ocean State, too, notes Wolfe. Rhode Island’s HTC program has stimulated more than $1.6 billion of investment in more than 250 projects within less than 7 years. For every dollar the state invests, there is a more than five dollar return in economic activity based on a study Wolf’s organization, Grow Smart Rhode Island, commissioned several years ago.

Wolf adds, “The evidence that the historic tax credit makes a real positive difference can be seen on the ground in communities throughout the state – in bustling commercial properties like Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket and along Westminster Street in Providence, in new apartments for urban workers and new affordable housing units. It can be seen in increased property tax revenues from rehabbed buildings. It can be seen in neighborhoods that have been rescued from the blight of vacant, derelict buildings.”

According to a media release issued jointly by Grow Smart Rhode Island and Preserve Rhode Island, $52 million in bond authorization remains in reserve from the total bond authorization approved in 2008 by the General Assembly for the original HTC program, which was discontinued in 2008 for any new projects but maintained for many other projects already under way at that time.

The General Assembly in 2013 reinstated the program, using $34.5 million in unclaimed tax credits from the prior program and, Wolf says, “The new program has ignited 26 new projects that will pump nearly $180 million into the Rhode Island economy, but 27 additional projects are waitlisted and in jeopardy if additional funding is not provided to sustain the program. By not including an extension of historic tax credit funding in the upcoming budget, the state risks forgoing up to $160 million in construction activity alone. Significant sales and employment taxes also will be lost.”

Preserve Rhode Island Executive Director Valerie Talmage says, “Our Historic Tax Credit program has an outstanding track record. From 2002 to 2008, it generated $1.3 billion in new private investment in Rhode Island’s real-estate economy, which resulted in 22,000 construction jobs, 6,000 permanent jobs, and total wages of more than $800 million. Our state cannot afford to shut this program down.”

Wolf added that suspending the HTC program again would be harmful because “We’d be ceding the competitive advantage provided by our world-renowned collection of distinctive historic buildings and neighborhoods to nearby states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York, each of which has ongoing and robust state historic tax credit programs.”

Finally, Wolf emphasized that another HTC program suspension would “Send a bad signal to investors and entrepreneurs about Rhode Island’s business climate and economic development credibility.”

Wolf and Talmage, together with their organization members, partners, and fellow advocates are calling on the General Assembly to “Continue the Historic Tax Credit program because it is a sound and critical investment in Rhode Island’s cities and towns and a proven job-generator and revenue producer, which our state sorely needs.”

In their lobbying Wolf, Talmage and their network of approximately 90 organizations who support the HTC program are quick to identify its positive impact. State officials will see higher state revenues through construction and other jobs generated by the HTC projects. In addition, job creation and increased employment taxes are derived years in advance of any outlay of state funding because Historic Tax Credits are not released for any enrolled project until the project is completed. Sales-tax revenues result from construction materials and other goods purchased for HTC projects also benefit the state in advance of any outlay.

Wolf and others also note that The Budget Office forecasts no fiscal impact to the state budget from the proposed $52 Million in debt service until FY ’19 because bonds won’t need to be issued until the projects have been completed and the tax credits have been claimed.

In an Op Ed in the Providence Journal, Pawtucket’s Mayor Donald R. Grebien and Central Fall’s Mayor James Diossa, support Wolf’s assessment of its impact in the state’s cities and towns. The Mayors say that their fiscally stressed communities benefit from Historic Tax Credits through increased property assessments.

Developing an Old Mill in Pawtucket

Antique Dealer and entrepreneur Scott Davis knows a good program when he sees one. The Eastside resident is planning to develop his old Fuller manufacturing mill on Exchange Street into a combination of commercial and residential space, but any state backpedaling of funding the HTC program will make it difficult to get his project off the ground.

An inquiry by Davis to Chairman Raymond Gallison of the House Committee on Finance, about the suspending of funding for HTC program resulted in an email explaining the decision. The chairman noted that a primary reason for rejecting Governor Chafee’s proposed additional $52 million HTC funding was based on the assertion that there were already sufficient funds in place in the existing program to meet current demand.

Davis disagrees. “My project, which is a rare and historically significant wooden mill built in a prominent Pawtucket city location alongside the Blackstone River is Number 65 in the queue,” he says, noting that he believes that none of the current funds in place will ever be allocated to his project.

“Financial assistance is essentially the only way that my mill project will ever be able to developed, says Davis, who notes that the cost to restore the historic structure versus the prevailing rental rate for space in Pawtucket simply doesn’t work out.

Chairman Gallison also noted that issues with tax credit brokers are a stumbling block for the program,” says Davis. “It is unimaginable that the resulting (legislative) decision] would be akin to ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. If there is a problem with the brokers, Davis calls on lawmakers to fix it, but threatening so many important buildings, jobs, and resulting tax revenues in the process just doesn’t make sense to him.

Davis says that previous HTC funds have made 8 major Pawtucket projects possible. According to the Pawtucket Foundation, the tax incentives were the catalyst for $150 million in local investments that increased property values by 728 % and increased Pawtucket tax revenues by over $1 million annually.

“Keeping these historic buildings intact while awaiting funding assistance is extremely expensive and no doubt we will lose many of them if we can’t save them promptly,” predicts Davis. “ I can tell you from personal experience that just keeping my small 26,000 sq. ft. mill ‘on hold’ costs me several thousand dollars per month just for taxes, insurance, utilities, fire safety, security and basic upkeep,” he says.

HTC is No 38 Studios

Some speculate that recent headlines about 38 Studios and tax credits in general may have spooked House and Senate Leadership to back away from funding the HTC program. Ultimately, the ball is in the court of Senate leadership who must respond to the budget proposal submitted by the House. How can lawmakers fear another 38 Studio debacle when the Historic Tax Credits are only issued upon completion of the project? In other words, after construction workers have laid the last brick – only after new residential and office space is actually available.

But, Gregg Paré, the Rhode Island’s Director of Communication, says don’t expect any action in the Senate to fund the state’s HTC program this year if the House fails to act. “The Senate is in agreement on the budget with the House,” he says, noting that Senate leadership usually iron out any differences before the budget reaches the House floor.

Paré says that the Senate has only once modified the House budget proposal in decades. But, now it’s time for this legislative action to happen again this year especially if the House budget does not include funding for the HTC program.

To Wolf, Talmage, and Davis, and to municipal leaders in a number of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, it is obvious that the program works and serves as an important tool for community revitalization and economic development.

For this columnist, funding the HTC program is just the right thing to do, for the economy and most importantly, for the tax payer.
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Herb Weiss is a writer covering health care, aging, medical issues and the economy. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.