New report names blue economy as major economic opportunity

PROVIDENCE – “The Ocean State” can be more than just a nickname for Rhode Island.

It also represents a key part of the state’s future economic growth.

A new report released Wednesday recommended that the state make the “blue economy” – a supersector representing the state’s aquaculture, coastal resilience programs, maritime industries, tourism, offshore wind energy and defense contractors – a major focus of its long-term economic plan. The “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0” report, commissioned by the R.I. Commerce Corp., serves as a follow-up to a 2016 report which outlined strategies and growth areas for the state to recover from the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

“The blue economy is where the green economy was 25 years ago,” said Bruce Katz, co-founder of New Localism Associates and report author. “Rhode Island can be a first mover in this new economy thanks to its obvious assets and competitive advantages.”

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Katz named three steps the Ocean State must take to solidify its position as leader of the blue economy: define the industry, which in its nascent state has remained largely unidentified; create an innovation campus that brings together university programs and companies of all levels of maturity; and ramp up workforce development and recruitment efforts to attract the kind of skilled workers needed to grow this supersector. 

The report also highlighted new opportunities for the state economy through the offshore wind energy sector and technologically advanced back office market space for major companies.

Even more important than these newly identified growth areas is the continuation of state programs and policies to support the seven advanced industries identified in the 2016 report, Katz said. The identified industries are biomedical innovation; defense shipbuilding and maritime; IT software, cyber-physical systems and data analytics; design, food and custom manufacturing; advanced business services; transportation, distribution and logistics; and arts, education, hospitality and tourism.

That the seven identified industries grew 5% faster than the state economy as a whole between 2013 and 2017 – the most important metric in the report, Katz said – shows the state’s programs and policies are working. 

CommerceRI’s Innovation Voucher Program for small businesses, workforce training through Real Jobs RI and the state’s SupplyRI Initiative were among those named as examples of successful programs.

Integration of these policies and programs has also been key to their success, Katz said.

“Most state programs are not integrated,” Katz said. “Rhode Island is small enough that you’re able to get your arms around these disparate sets of related programs and put them in unified service of growing these advanced industries.”

Still, Rhode Island’s economic horizon is not without threats. The historically low unemployment rate has made it difficult to find qualified workers, particularly for advanced industries. From 2010 to 2019, non-advanced industries added 39,400 net jobs compared to 2,800 in advanced industries, the report stated. Exacerbating this are the state’s unreliable public school quality and a lack of adequate housing options for workers.

A 2% vacancy rate in industrial space makes business expansion a challenge, the report stated.

And while significant reforms to the state’s corporate tax burden and regulation process have improved the business climate, there’s still room for improvement.

The report recommended creating a taxpayer advocate position, as 29 states have done, to help small businesses navigate the complexities of taxes and regulations.

Other recommendations the report made include:

  • Enact a minority business accelerator, modeled after Cincinnati, to bring the number and scale of minority-owned businesses in the state up to its share of the population;
  • Invest in targeted infrastructure such as wetlabs, large-scale site assembly and preparation and a smart bay to support growth of identified advanced industries;
  • Create a local development fellows program to help local governments design, finance and deliver “transformative revitalization”;
  • Match investments of institutions and individuals with projects that are investor-ready through an InvestRI Initiative.

R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said that the governor’s proposed budget provide for down payments on some of the report’s recommendations, including $10 million in bonds for a smart bay for underwater ocean analysis; $21.5 million in bonds for industrial site readiness; and an $8.7 million increase for the Real Jobs RI program.

“As the report makes clear, Rhode Island has made significant progress in advancing its economy over the past few years,” Pryor said. “We need to double down on our efforts and continue efforts in key industries where Rhode Island excels.”

The report cost 468,600, including contributions from RI Commerce and other agencies.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at