Economic Outlook Breakfast portends economic renaissance – and another Super Bowl win

PROVIDENCE – Those at Thursday’s Economic Outlook Breakfast by Santander Bank and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce may have come away thinking that Rhode Island is undergoing an economic renaissance. But is it true? The speakers made a case for it.

From Gov. Gina M. Raimondo to Santander Executive Vice President Mike Lee and University of Rhode Island President David Dooley, they talked about “the new economy” and the potential business opportunities and well-paying jobs it promises to continue bringing to Rhode Island in the future.

They also talked about the creation of “innovation campuses” – innovation was the meeting’s theme – to nurture and capitalize on emerging industries, focusing so far on three areas: data analytics and cybersecurity to better capture the ongoing “digital transformation” of the economy; agriculture technology, such as applying genomics to enhance Rhode Island’s crop production to prepare for a climate change-impacted future that seems destined to raise “food scarcity” issues even in First World countries like the United States; and business incubators to fast-track entrepreneurs with worthy ideas – imagine the pairing of university-trained whiz kids with grizzled venture capitalists. All being partly seeded with taxpayer dollars approved through a state bond referendum in 2016.

Lee, also managing director of commercial real estate banking for Boston-based Santander, was first up to address the several hundred people seated around the ballroom at the posh Omni Providence Hotel. He told the crowd that Santander is doing its part in Rhode Island’s new economy, growing its regional workforce to 1,200 people in recent years. He added that innovation campuses are expected to create “hundreds of jobs” within the state sometime in the future. He also commended Raimondo for her “pro-business” policies to help remake the economy.

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The governor tossed out some more specific numbers: Since she took office in January 2015, 30 companies have relocated to or expanded in Rhode Island, creating more than 4,000 jobs with average pay of $65,000 a year. She said Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is below 4 percent, the lowest its been since 1989, with more jobs inside the state than ever before. Rhode Island has become a national leader in wage growth, she added.

Raimondo said feedback she’s gotten from small business owners is that many are adding small numbers of jobs, showing that “the experience on the ground matches the macro-data” – proof that her economic development initiatives are helping and are worth continuing.

She noted her administration’s unprecedented menu of financial incentives for businesses in Rhode Island, as well as steps she’s taken to “make it easier and cheaper to do business…by clearing out the underbrush of outdated regulations.”

Dooley credited Raimondo and her secretary of commerce, Stefan Pryor, whose position she created, for starting the innovation campus program. The idea, Dooley noted, is to capitalize on research and talent at state universities – namely URI and its partner, Arizona State University – to create a “synergistic partnership” between business and higher education.

One of the campuses or “hubs,” Dooley added, will be located at the new Wexford Innovation Center in Providence. “It will be a straight-up innovation center,” he explained during a panel discussion on the matter, “to develop ideas; ready them for the marketplace; and bring them out.” The two other initial campuses or hubs will be based out of URI in Kingston and possibly at the Wexford building.

Another panelist was Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president at ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, who said ASU’s focus in Rhode Island’s program is taking the “know-how created within the university” to develop new products and services and preparing participants to spot changing business trends and capitalize on them before or as they blossom.

Dooley and Choi were joined by Michael Hallock, CEO of RI Agriculture Technologies and CEO and co-founder of the Rhode Island Mushroom Co., described as the largest grower and purveyor of exotic mushrooms in the Northeast. Hallock said his ventures are a big part of the “ag tech” innovation campus, expanding its facilities and focusing more on controlled-environment agriculture, a technology-based approach to food production.

It’s not just about mushrooms anymore. “We’ll use genomics and engineering to develop other crops in the Northeast,” he said.

The event included a real-time survey of the attendees, who appeared to have as rosy a picture of the local economy as the speakers. The crowd of business people were given wireless devices to register their responses to questions about their companies and the economy. The results were mainly positive. The most common response to the economy question was that it will be about the same or better over the next 12 months. When asked about their companies, the most common responses were their businesses are in “somewhat better shape” than a year ago and their businesses are expected to be in “somewhat better shape” in a year than they are now.

Perhaps reflecting the rosy disposition of attendees, the last question asked was if the New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl again next season. The majority said yes.

“If the Patriots win, we lose because of sports betting,” joked Chamber President Laurie White, “but we all voted for it.”

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Blake@PBN.com