By Matt Sheley
Daily News staff writer
Originally posted 2/8/2018 to http://www.newportri.com/bb08ee9b-bac5-531a-aefb-df6bdee4a63c.html
NEWPORT -- If Newport County wants to become known as an international business destination as much as for its tourism, officials know they need to do a better job getting the word out.
A new website, connectgreaternewport.com, went live last week to promote the area’s economic opportunities and connect potential business partners.
As part of a joint public-private partnership to grow the economy that is being spearheaded through the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, local business people are being asked to fill out an online survey to provide their ideas and perspectives.
The information will be compiled by consultant Fourth Economy, and used to roll out a plan to help the region retain the businesses it has and attract new ones without sacrificing what makes the area special.
“We publicly kicked off the initiative at the chamber’s annual meeting last week, where we had 230 people in attendance,” chamber Executive Director Erin Donovan-Boyle said. “We’ve also been interviewing municipal and industry leaders to start to get a sense of how we can best support economic growth. So far, everyone has been enthusiastic, full of good ideas and giving of their time and energy.”
For decades, municipal and economic leaders have talked about how the region needs to become more business-friendly. Not dismissing the strong defense and tourism industries, they commented about how people from around the world would visit and spend their free time in Newport County, but they are reluctant to do business here.
Seeing the trend, former chamber Executive Director Jody Sullivan, who retired in 2015, suggested the chamber coordinate an effort to make Newport County more of a player with businesses.
Donovan-Boyle took the idea and got buy-ins from officials in Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth and Tiverton.
A number of businesses also stepped up, and the van Beuren Charitable Trust and BankNewport made major contributions.
The Pittsburgh-based Fourth Economy was named from a list of interested consulting firms to guide the campaign. In addition to the firm’s knowledge of Newport County, the consultants have been credited with having the right approach to make the collaboration a success.
Based on what he’s seen so far, Newport Director of Civic Investment Paul Carroll said it is hard not to come away impressed.
″(Fourth Economy) knows Rhode Island and more importantly for us, the greater Newport County economy,” Carroll said. “It’s great everyone has a willingness to work together at the table. The thinking is we all gain if we’re able to grow the businesses we already have or bring in new ones and this hopefully puts us in a much better position than we’ve been in the past.”
Leland “Lee” Merrill Jr., executive vice president and chief operating officer of BankNewport, agreed, saying the collaboration happening here isn’t common.
″[W]e see the tremendous value of all of the communities working together for common goals to maintain and enhance the quality of life in Newport County by providing good jobs for residents, resources for businesses, and expansion, growth and investment opportunities for the region,” Merrill wrote in an email. “It’s rare to see leadership of so many towns come together to collaboratively pool resources for an initiative like this and BankNewport wanted to be involved in this innovative approach to economic development.”
Visitors to connectgreaternewport.com are greeted with a summertime photo of Bowen’s Wharf, the lively downtown waterfront area, with sailboats and visitors enjoying a meal.
Inside, there’s a listing of the communities, resources and contact information along with other details.
The online survey asks business people to identify themselves and answer about a dozen questions confidentially through the site. The questions include ways they’d like to better market and advertise their business, their impressions of the region’s workforce, transportation, lodging, utilities and other items.
Donovan-Boyle said since the Fourth Economy effort started earlier this year, there’s been a high level of support for the initiative. She said Commerce Rhode Island, the state’s economic development arm, has signed up as a critical partner.
Discover Newport, the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, Newport Hospital, Naval Station Newport and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center have participated, among others.
“This effort is important first for a very practical and tactical reason, which is that our region’s municipalities, with the exception of the city of Newport and a part-time employee in Portsmouth, do not have dedicated economic development staff,” Donovan-Boyle said. “Town councils, managers and planners, as well as community volunteers, are doing their best to support existing businesses, who come to them with requests for support, or new businesses looking to locate in their communities. However, they recognize that by pooling their resources, they can add dedicated economic development capacity to support their businesses’ growth.”
She said the campaign would help better position Newport County economically.
“Our workforce is aging and we aren’t retaining or attracting enough younger workers; middle class industries such as manufacturing are shrinking as lower-paying service industries are increasing; our over-concentration in a few industries decreases our resilience to economic shocks; and everyone from service workers to well-paid professionals are struggling to find housing,” Donovan-Boyle said. “These are not challenges that individual municipalities can solve alone -- they require a regional approach.”