Can too much transparency hinder economic development?

There’s a running debate between the state and some outside parties about how much information related to luring business here should be shared with the public.

The issue culminated earlier this month when R.I. Commerce Corp., Rhode Island’s economic-development arm, unwillingly released part of its failed pitch to land the second headquarters of Amazon.com Inc.

Commerce initially denied an Access to Public Records Request made by the Providence Journal (a similar request from Providence Business News was also denied), citing an exemption for “statements of strategy or negotiation.” But the decision was partially reversed after the daily newspaper filed a complaint with the state attorney general.

The state, however, withheld how much taxpayer money it was willing to cough up in exchange for the online retail giant establishing a base in the Ocean State.

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A Commerce RI spokesman said the decision was meant to protect against future companies using the information as leverage in negotiations. But the reasoning failed to carry water in the eyes of some government watchdogs, including John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

“We feel it is certainly in the public interest to know the extent of any tax breaks that were offered,” Marion said. “Rhode Island is not a finalist, so releasing those numbers does not put it at an economic disadvantage.”

Countering the state’s rationale, Marion pointed to other governments throughout the country that have disclosed similar information.

“Several jurisdictions, including some of the finalists, have made public the dollar figures being offered,” Marion said.

The online retailer has deftly played state and local governments against one another, yielding pitches from governments throughout the country. A city in Georgia reportedly went so far as offering to change its name to “Amazon” should it win the bid.

Rhode Island’s pitch, the public now knows, centered around five locations throughout the state, including the so-called Superman Building in Providence. The city’s tallest building stands vacant and its owner in the past has repeatedly asked for public subsidies to rehabilitate the 90-year-old structure.

What the state was willing to offer Amazon to rehabilitate the Art Deco tower could shed some light on how much – or little – it is willing to spend on the capital city’s most prominent building.

Edward M. Mazze, distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Rhode Island, however, said disclosing such information could hurt the state nationally and locally.

“It could be used as a bargaining chip for companies already here,” Mazze said. “In other words, if I was [one of them], this could open a situation where I’d say, ‘Hey, you’re willing to offer Amazon a sweet deal. Why can’t I have a sweet deal?’ ”

Commerce spokesman Matt Sheaff said Amazon would “continue to draw upon [the pitch] as they speak with Rhode Island about other opportunities.”

If such conversations are preventing the state from divulging more information, Marion said, he urges Rhode Island officials to release the information whenever talks end.