Two decades ago, Rhode Island was in the grip of a harsh and unrelenting recession. The mood in the state was grim.
One night in 1992, while in my office at the R.I. Department of Economic Development, I received a call from Jim Skeffington, the prominent Providence attorney, and from Terry Murray, chairman of Fleet Financial. They told me that Fleet had a big decision to make: Expand in Rhode Island or in other, more business-friendly, states.
Within an hour, Mr. Skeffington, Mr. Murray and myself were sitting in Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s office, and that night the governor made a decision to support legislation to improve the business climate for financial-services companies.
Upon approval by the General Assembly, Fleet began a major build-up in Rhode Island. Several years later, Gov. Lincoln Almond won passage for even more sweeping legislation, and Fidelity Investments came to Rhode Island.
In 2013, under similar circumstances, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed are well-positioned to turn a crisis into an opportunity for the people of Rhode Island. Too much is at stake for our workers and their families not to act.
While Rhode Island is a wonderful state to live in, it is not a great state to do business in. Government needs to help make capital more available to small business, provide more job training and career education, fight at the PUC for lower energy costs, contain health care costs, and ease regulatory burdens related to the building code, fire code, occupancy permits and environmental permits issued by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.
Twenty years ago, it was obvious to Gov. Sundlun and to me that financial services was a rapidly growing sector in the Northeast. Today, it is “eds and meds.”
There is plenty of opportunity for Rhode Island to grow this vital sector. Back in 1992, as director of the Department of Economic Development, I contracted with planner William D. Warner to come up with a master plan for the corridor in downtown Providence that would be freed up by the demolition of Interstate 195. Warner’s plan made the Providence corridor attractive for biotech and medically related companies in what we now call the Knowledge District.