Last summer, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation announced that, on August 20, it would hold the first meeting of its “Marketing/Reputation Management Committee,” one of five subcommittees launched under the EDC’s new executive director, Marcel Valois. However, due to what an RIEDC spokesperson told the Providence Journal were last-minute scheduling changes that resulted in a lack of a quorum, the meeting never happened. And it never will — at least, not under the umbrella of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation.
As of January 1, 2014, thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly during the 2013 session, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) has been replaced by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, or Commerce RI, for short. The agency has a new sign above the front desk at their Providence headquarters. It has a new logo, new social media pages (@CommerceRI, facebook.com/CommerceRI) and a new web address (commerceri.com). “To us, it’s the dawn of a new era,” chief of staff J.R. Pagliarini told the Phoenix.
But is it? Do these changes actually mean anything? Or are they just new attempts to exorcise the ghosts of the EDC board’s infamous $75 million vote on July 26, 2010?
These are impossible questions to immediately answer. First off, the name change is just one part of a complex package of legislature-prescribed reforms, many of which — the creation of a new secretary of commerce position, for example — won’t take effect until January 1, 2015. And even when economic development works, it doesn’t happen overnight. Ignoring that reality likely helped push the RIEDC into the 38 Studios volcano in the first place. (The minutes from that fateful 2010 meeting include a statement from absent board member, Dr. Timothy Babineau, who explained his “Yes” vote with a note that included, “We must change our way of thinking and our way of doing business in Rhode Island if we intend to not merely ‘keep pace’ with the rest of the country as we emerge from this recession — but rather leap-frog the pack and take a leadership role. 38 Studios presents such an opportunity.”)
Does all of this mean it’s too early to take a closer look at the RIEDC’s makeover? Of course not. We at the Phoenix have spent recent weeks doing just that, and dividing our findings into three highly scientific categories: “The Good,” “The Bad,” and “The In-Between.”
1) THE BOTTOM
The most obvious good news for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation is actually . . . bad news. According to recent statistics released by the United States Department of Labor, Rhode Island is tied with Nevada for the highest unemployment rate in the United States. According to CNBC’s 2013 “America’s Top States for Business” rankings, Rhode Island clocks in at Number 49. In a December 2013Forbes article titled “The Metro Areas With The Most Economic Momentum Going Into 2014,” Providence ranks third-to-last, just ahead of Detroit and Las Vegas. According to an op-ed in the January 5 Providence Journal penned by former RIEDC executive director Michael McMahon, the Ocean State’s economy resembles a ship hit by a tsunami. “The wind is driving the ship toward the rocks, the engines are dead, the hull is gashed, water is pouring in, the pumps aren’t working and the rudder has been torn off,” he wrote.
In other words, January of 2014 sure feels like rock bottom for our state’s economy. Sure, you might quibble with the CNBC and Forbes methodologies or Mr. McMahon’s use of imagery. But, effectively speaking, we have only one direction to go: up.
2) THE EDC NEEDED A RE-BRAND — DESPERATELY
It’s no surprise that the letters R-I-E-D-C carry negative connotations in Rhode Island. “[N]ear-consistent among all of the perspectives that the General Assembly has heard this session on economic development is that the ‘EDC’ brand name is broken,” Senator James Sheehan (D-Narragansett, North Kingstown), who sponsored part of the RIEDC overhaul legislation, told us.
But take a spin around the ol’ World Wide Web — on video-game industry blogs, on sports chatter sites, on Slate — and you’ll see just how widely circulated articles about the 38 Studios meltdown are. It isn’t just Rhode Islanders who look askance at the RIEDC — it’s tens of thousands of readers around the world.
Are we saying the RIEDC was solely responsible for the 38 Studios mess? Hardly. But, PR-wise, the agency didn’t have the luxury of, say, deciding to seemingly disappear from the face of the earth (cough, Don Carcieri, cough).
The cold fact is this: when the New York Times publishes a 5000-word feature article about your organization that includes the sentence, “Even in a state that long served as New England’s Mafia headquarters — and a state whose best-known modern political figure, Buddy Cianci, the former Providence mayor, was sent to prison in a federal corruption case known as Operation Plunder Dome — the 38 Studios debacle has registered as a painful embarrassment,” it’s probably time for a new look. And now, the RIEDC has one.
3) THE RENEWABLE ENERGY FUND
Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to adapt our state economy to changing climates and rising waters. (And unreasonable people will continue to debate whether climate change exists at all.) But we at the Phoenix applaud Commerce RI’s Renewable Energy Fund program, which incrementally lends and grants funds to projects taking part in our state’s energy future.
The REF issued $39,750 to help develop of a one-megawatt solar farm in Burrillville; $53,170 to help establish solar electricity at the state’s first planned net-zero-energy building in Newport; and $200,000 in recoverable grant funds for a feasibility study on a 300-kilowatt hydroelectric dam in West Warwick. This is what the future looks like, and it appears Commerce RI is playing a key role.
The reason we know so much about the Renewable Energy Fund is that we’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the information and raw documents available at Commerce RI’s website and Rhode Island’s online transparency portal (transparency.ri.gov/).
The RIEDC was already committed to posting financial statements, audited reports, organizational charts, info on of board members, and other documents (including the entire civil complaint against 38 Studios aimed at recouping taxpayer losses, which we’ll discuss a bit later), but the recent laws actually demand the agency share this material. And unlike some of the other reforms, which seem to simply complicate an already tangled state bureaucracy (more on that later, too), increasing public access to the inner workings of Commerce RI is a basic, tangible way of winning back public trust.
5) “RIEDC SUCCESS STORY” IS NOT AN OXYMORON
NuLabel Technologies is an East Providence-based startup with one hell of a good idea. They’ve created an adhesive label technology — applicable to products ranging from beer bottles to boxes to prescription bottles — that doesn’t require the extra, non-stick layer we’re used to peeling off before applying such a label. These liner-free, activatable labels can exponentially cut down cost and waste for companies that use millions or billions of labels per year. Having grown from three to 25 employees since their founding in 2009, NuLabel is a 21st-century Rhode Island success story. And they couldn’t have done it without the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, company president and co-founder Max Winograd says.
Formally, NuLabel was one of four companies — along with 38 Studios, eNow, and The Corporate Marketplace — that took advantage of the now-infamous Job Creation Guarantee Program, before the General Assembly repealed it. But NuLabel never actually drew any of the $1.5 million that the RIEDC helped them secure; they haven’t had to.
In fact, it was an informal RIEDC interaction that provided one of the sparks NuLabel needed. The company’s “most significant strategic investor to date” was introduced to them by a full-time EDC staffer who had a personal connection personal with an executive at that company, Winograd says.
The connection has helped NuLabel obtain capital, grow operations, and increase its visibility, and Winograd is convinced that this wasn’t just a freak coincidence. It’s part of what the agency is designed to do. “If people are constantly being challenged to come up with those kind of informal connections at Commerce RI,” he says, “I think we’ll be very well positioned to help a lot of companies succeed, both in the region and also nationwide.”