City can grab piece of Boston’s economic boom

Less than an hour away from Providence, an economic boom is taking place. I’m talking about Boston, where there seems to be a crane on every corner and a new company moving to town every week, bringing thousands of jobs with them. Boston is bursting at the seams, with rents skyrocketing; traffic going from bad to worse and available real estate becoming scarce. Boston’s growth is a fantastic opportunity for Providence.

The right strategic plan and leadership from our elected officials will allow Providence and Rhode Island to enjoy the benefits of Boston’s boom. Providence is the ideal destination for companies that want to be involved in the Boston economy without paying the high Boston prices for office space. Our cost of living is more affordable, traffic is better and public transportation is easily accessible. Our elected leaders should work to make these strengths even better while aggressively marketing them to companies in Boston and companies looking to move to Boston.

One of the key ingredients to Boston’s success is the city’s numerous universities. According to a 2009 report by the nonpartisan Bureau of Labor Statistics, Boston is second only to San Francisco in attracting venture-capital funding for biotechnology companies. Biotech companies are drawn to the Boston area because of the educated workforce and top-tier research laboratories, both of which were created by the city’s universities. With Providence so close to Boston and impressive universities of our own; why can’t we be on that list?

Rhode Island has world-class universities. While Brown University is the most well-known, our other schools such as Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Bryant University, University of Rhode Island, and Roger Williams University also conduct cutting-edge research and produce well-educated workers. Additionally, our hospitals are hubs of medical innovation. Our elected leaders have been encouraging these organizations to expand. Although naysayers like to complain about how hospitals and universities don’t pay property taxes, they ignore the economic benefits of having innovative institutions in our state. If they don’t believe me, they should ask a Boston businessperson or someone who has benefited from their services; to tell you about how university expansion has been the catalyst for Boston’s boom.

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With that boom has come higher prices, and that’s the opening for Providence and Rhode Island to attract jobs. The combination of proximity to Boston and easy public transit, good universities and hospitals, and lower costs should make Providence a magnet for companies strained by Boston’s rising prices. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza have been working to expand these strengths. Though Amtrak and the commuter rail already provide speedy, traffic-free transportation to Boston, they should run more frequently. In the long term, our leaders should encourage the construction of truly high-speed rail.

Even more importantly, we should roll out the welcome mat for companies looking to move and startups looking to do business in Boston. We have the same strengths they do but with lower prices, and that’s a winning formula.

Stamford, Conn., used that formula to create a successful economy in a smaller city. They took advantage of New York City’s status as the financial capital of America by marketing the city as the cheaper alternative for companies that wanted to do business in the New York market. As a result, Stamford is home to four Fortune 500 companies and has a lower unemployment rate than the national or Connecticut state averages. There is no reason Providence cannot copy Stamford’s success.

Gov. Raimondo is partnering with the Brookings Institution for a comprehensive study of Rhode Island’s economy. I have total confidence in the researchers at Brookings, especially Michael Fascitelli; a Rhode Island native and product of our prestigious educational institutions. I encourage Mr. Fascitelli and the entire team to focus on how we can capitalize on Boston’s boom. This measured, data-driven approach to economic development is exactly what our state needs. There are no cranes in the air or shovels in the ground and that needs to change.

Providence and Rhode Island have all the attributes we need to attract biotech and other innovative companies that are already flocking to Boston. Our low costs, easy public transportation to Boston and successful universities and hospitals all make the state and city an attractive destination. All we need is hands-on leadership and a good, strategic plan to market these strengths. I’m confident Gov. Raimondo and her economic-development team, headed by Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, will rise to the occasion and capture some of Boston’s economic boom. •

Joseph R. Paolino Jr. is managing partner of Paolino Properties and a former mayor of Providence.

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