By William Hamilton
PBN Staff Writer
Building an innovation economy is still crucial to the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, but agency officials want the business community to know they are focusing on more than that.
To that end, the EDC last week released its 2009 Economic Growth Plan that the agency’s top official said is more comprehensive than the plan from a year ago in addressing the state’s economic woes and waning job market.
The plan, subtitled “Rhode Island, Working Again,” emphasizes the need for the quasi-public EDC to assist small businesses; to build partnerships with the business community, other state agencies and the federal government; to focus on work force development and to become more responsive.
“In this economy, more than ever before, we need to be able to turn on a dime,” the EDC stated in the plan. “We need to provide struggling companies with capital when they need it, take strategic advantage of the coming infusion of federal stimulus dollars, be able to pounce when an out-of-state company is looking to relocate and be ready with the perfect site, expedited permitting, and a work force with the right skills to step into those new jobs.”
The 2009 plan clearly has a different tone than the one published a year earlier, which focused largely on fostering an innovation economy in the Ocean State with the intent of creating higher-wage jobs for Rhode Islanders.
Since then, the economy has soured further and unemployment has continued its upward climb to 10.5 percent as of February, and the EDC itself has undergone an overhaul at the top.
Longtime EDC director Saul Kaplan left to return to the private sector and J. Michael Saul has been named the agency’s interim director. And Melissa Withers, the EDC director of communications and marketing, followed Kaplan out the door in mid-December.
“The ’09 plan is more comprehensive about all the things that EDC is doing,” Saul told Providence Business News last week. “I think the ’08 plan was more about the innovation initiatives.”
“I think the agency took a little bit of a reputation hit for that,” Saul continued. “People perhaps thought that the only thing that the agency was about was the innovation economy, and that’s just not the case.”
“We’re really about trying to get a job for everybody,” he added.
A broad strategy document that will generally guide the EDC over the next year, the 2009 economic growth plan features 10 actions that will “confront our economic challenges and begin to put Rhode Island back to work,” the EDC said in the 10-page report.
But the agency is not abandoning the concept of an innovation economy.
In fact, one action in the new economic growth plan calls for a special commission to come up with ways to retool the Community College of Rhode Island so it can create a “21st century work force.”
The CCRI Workforce Commission, first recommended in the 2008 EDC plan, has already been formed and has hired national nonprofit Workforce Strategy Center to assist.
Also, Saul noted that the new economic plan endorses efforts to foster the creation of new business, particularly with the creation of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), partnership between the EDC and Brown University.
But Saul said this year’s plan acknowledges the growing economic crisis, and the need to take action on several fronts.
Most prominently, EDC said it wants to help small businesses get access to capital in a tight credit market. At the EDC board meeting last week, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri said he’s hearing from local businesses that loans have become even more difficult to obtain as the economy softens further.
Saul said the agency – as part of the governor’s small-business stimulus package — is working to get a cash infusion from the U.S. Economic Development Administration for the state-operated Small Business Loan Fund.
The plan also recommends the creation of a “public-private business attraction center,” in which the business community leaders and the state would collaborate to woo new companies here.
“I think there’s a fair amount of opportunity from Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Saul said. “But I think there’s the larger opportunity [outside the region]. That’s where we need to elevate the game” •