Cities are seen fueling economy

Rhode Island’s cities will drive its economy in the future and leaders should focus investments on the existing assets and people within them, according to a proposed economic-development plan for the state.
Weighing in at 181 pages plus appendices, the plan is an exhaustive compilation of business-community priorities, entrepreneurial trends, executive-branch initiatives, social-justice goals, environmental concerns and land-use principles.
Some have described it as the most comprehensive effort to focus the state’s economic policy since the ill-fated Greenhouse Compact in 1984.
Paid for mostly with federal grants and under development for two years, the plan was released to relatively little public attention in the run-up to this year’s general election and is only now drawing debate from critics and supporters.
It was approved this month by the RhodeMap RI consortium – which represents 35 organizations, from state agencies and town governments to private nonprofits – and was expected to receive final approval – by the State Planning Council – on Nov. 20, before the vote was delayed at the request of House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.
The plan’s clearest unifying theme is the focus on cities fueling the state’s economic engine.
In some quarters, that goal has rekindled city-versus-suburb debates and prompted questions about whether the state should engage in central planning, or leave all decisions to local politicians and the market.
“We are not Texas or Oklahoma – we don’t have unlimited land,” said Kevin Flynn, R.I. Department of Administration associate director and leader of the RhodeMap RI planning consortium that produced the plan. “We have a lot of urban areas to reinvest in and focus on. To not expensively expand infrastructure to where it doesn’t exist should not be a criticism, but an asset.”
Driving the urban focus is the fact that Rhode Islanders over the past several decades have continued to spread out across undeveloped land even while the population has been static.
That means state and local governments are providing public services – such as education, roads, sewers, police and firefighters – to the same number of taxpayers across a larger area, increasing the cost of providing those services. By concentrating growth in already-developed areas, state planners hope to stimulate new economic activity without having to build new roads, sewers, water mains and highway lanes.
At the same time, leaving land undeveloped protects wildlife habitat and farmland while reducing costly stormwater runoff, they argue.
The plan also concludes that focusing energy in urban areas will benefit the residents with lower incomes who already live there and minority populations projected to grow in coming years.
It’s this social-equity piece, combined with urbanist language, that some residents have objected to.
“The American dream once meant ownership of land and a home, with a white picket fence around the yard, as a symbol of independence and as a step toward prosperity,” wrote the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity in a letter to the state planning division. “As we understand the goals of RhodeMap RI and the larger, international sustainable-living movement, that dream is to be reduced to living in a multiuse tenement building, with a rail around a small balcony, in a socially engineered, collectivist society.”
Of course, there’s nothing really resembling that description in the plan, but Center for Freedom and Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse said he’s concerned its abstract goals reflect an agenda from Washington policymakers that could eventually grow into things like costly public infrastructure spending, environmental laws limiting property use and local housing quotas based on race and income.
“We believe this is social equity and justice and not an economic plan – there is no economics in here,” Stenhouse said.
Funded primarily through a $2.3 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, the economic-development plan combines ideas assembled from a number of public, corporate and nonprofit sources over the past year.
The Rhode Island Foundation, which contributed $75,000 to the effort, held brainstorming sessions last year with more than 200 businesses to gather their ideas.
The suggestions from those sessions were then used by R.I. Commerce Corporation officials working with Pittsburgh-based consultants Fourth Economy to produce an economic “action plan” in May. Large sections of the new plan are based directly on that Commerce plan and were then fleshed out and integrated with land use, environmental and social-equity sections by the state-planning-division-led RhodeMap group.
The plan will be the first presented to the General Assembly under post-38 Studios economic-development reforms and will need to be updated by Gov.-elect Gina M. Raimondo.
Some have suggested that it doesn’t make sense to saddle a new governor with the plan of a predecessor. But Janet Raymond, senior vice president of economic development and operations for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the State Planning Council, disagrees.
“I think this is a good foundational document for the next administration to consider,” Raymond said in a phone interview. “Any plan needs to be flexible and agile and able to change, but something we have all said is we need to all be rowing in the same direction.”
Particular aspects of the plan Raymond said she endorses are calls to streamline permitting, expand workforce training and cut taxes to make them competitive with neighboring states.
While land use is a major focus of the economic plan, the RhodeMap effort will also include a separate housing plan scheduled for release in February.
So what are some of the plan’s more specific, pointed highlights?
Although “growth centers” is a common thread throughout, only some of the recommendations have to do with land use or cities.
In education and workforce training, the plan supports, among other things, universal pre-kindergarten, concentrating workforce-development management in the Governor’s Workforce Board, child care services at job-training facilities, expanded adult-education programs, K-12 inter-district English-as-a-second-language programs, greater in-school career counseling and more internship and apprenticeship programs.
On taxes, the plan supports a broad menu of breaks and incentive programs.
It would support restoring the state historic-tax-credit program with “adequate funding to spur development”; cut sales taxes to be competitive with Massachusetts and Connecticut; create a commission to study standardized guidelines for local property tax structures and consider allowing communities to exclude new revenue in growth centers from their annual tax cap; consider making sales, corporate and property tax-free zones in targeted development areas and creating Tax Increment Financing programs using income tax revenue from new companies in certain sectors. To grow high-potential industries, the plan supports creation of a maritime cybersecurity center, building the design manufacturing center already in planning, expanding the renewable energy distributed-generation program, creating a food and beverage czar in the Commerce Corporation, investing in smart-grid companies and boosting annual spending on state tourism promotion from $500,000 to $5 million by fiscal 2017.
Finally, in real estate development, the plan would create a statewide building and fire-code permitting center that large projects could apply to for approvals, instead of relying on often time-consuming, local inspections.
It would also look for new, “pad-ready” industrial sites, possibly in a new park but nothing the size of Quonset Business Park, according to Flynn.
It seeks growth of commuter-rail service to T.F. Green Airport; creation of a state infrastructure bank and revolving fund for water and sewer projects; new bike paths and mass-transit service; helping communities reforming their zoning code to allow denser, mixed-use construction and potentially creating a new state “urban-redevelopment office” to help spur reuse of underutilized areas.
It’s unlikely all of the recommendations could be achieved at once, even over several years, but it gives lawmakers a menu of potential policies to pursue with statistics to back them up.
“People have been yearning for a plan for years – we have not had one,” said Rhode Island Foundation President Neil Steinberg. “We also want a sustainable economy with smart growth that includes everyone and preserves the environment. The key is to now start doing some of this.” •

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