Local leaders: We’ve got to start thinking regionally in Rhode Island
Reposted From East Bay RI Warren:
Business, government leaders meet at WaterRower to talk regionalism and state’s challenges
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2019
Leaders (from left) Rich Overmoyer of Connect Greater Newport, broadband consultant Ashley Medeiros and Congressman David Cicilline, discuss issues of regional importance last week at WaterRower.
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2019 2:14 pm
By Ted Hayes
They say there is strength in numbers, and that is what brought dozens of East Bay civic and business leaders to WaterRower last Wednesday for a discussion of regional economic development issues across the East Bay and Rhode Island.
The discussion was hosted by Connect Greater Newport, the Town of Warren and WaterRower, and was held in the manufacturer’s new conference room on Metacom Avenue. Over the course of about an hour, Congressman David Cicilline, RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian, business consultant Ashley Medeiros, Rich Overmoyer of Connect Greater Newport and Scott R. Jensen, director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, talked on a wide range of tops of import here and nearby, including job training, transportation, infrastructure, technology and other issues important to business owners and residents.
While they all spoke on different subjects, the bottom line was clear:
“We need to take the blinders off and start looking at things on a regional basis,” Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli said as he started off the talk. “I know regionalism is not part of the Rhode Island lexicon yet but it probably can be and should be.”
Though Rhode Island is small, panelists said that municipalities and businesses should try to work together when possible to solve issues important to them all. Parochialism has long defined local government and business thinking. But there are economies of scale and strength that can result if different interests work together, they suggested.
Connect Greater Newport, said Mr. Overmoyer, is a good example:
“It’s a public/private partnership looking at how do we think about this area as a region? There are issues no municipalities can resolve on their own.”
To that end, panelists spoke about the regional things they’re working on within their own spheres:
At the federal level
Congressman Cicilline said two of the Democratic caucus’s most important initiatives are infrastucture and workdforce development, and he would like to see “bold” investments in those areas.
Infrastructure is key, he said, as investment there will help people on ground level better work together, communicate and get things done:
"If we are going to be successful as an economy, we need to move goods, services and information,” he said.”It really does require a significant investment of resources. I am proud to say that it is in the works … I know that you will see, at least in the House, a very significant infrastructure bill It is important because it’s not only an exponential investment that has a huge impact, but it’s also about quality of life. People see and feel (infrastructure) every day. This remains very important.”
As the head of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, Mr. Avedisian thinks about transportation on a state-wide basis and recently helped establish a new bus route through Warren, after fielding requests from the town and businesses including WaterRower, Taylor Box and others.
“The culture in New England and particularly Rhode Island is that public transportation is not something that people really think of,” but “public transportation is a huge component, I think, for regional success,” he said.
Recently, RIPTA was able to lobby for changes in state law that allow public bus service over the state line into Massachusetts, albeit just five miles over. However, that was still a significant step as it allows service to Fall River. Getting permission to travel further afield on the I95 and I195 corridors would be a big step, he said:
“I think we have some good things happening that have allowed us to reach more people, with an understanding that we’re willing to tweak service as to what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “Nothing is a failure as long as we continue to improve it as we go along.”
He’s only been on the job about a year, but already Scott Jensen, head of the state’s Department of Labor and Training, said it’s clear that in order for his department to help grow jobs here, better communication is needed between the state and business leaders, who know what they need but not always how to get it. He is optimistic that things are improving.
“When Bob (Rulli) and (Warren Town Manager Kate Michaud) said, ‘Hey, we’re not getting the help we need,’ my response was, ‘OK, what do you need?’”
“The world is changing,” he said. “That’s why so many of us are having a hard time finding the workforce we need. So we need to do it better. There is a kid right now who is perfect to work in your companies,” he said, looking at business owners in the audience. “They just don’t know about it. They don’t know how cool it is to make rowing machine. But you have to find that kid and then you need to expose that person to the great regional work that’s being done here, and then give that kid a shot. That goes for every company.
The state’s new program, Real Jobs RI, he said, helps accomplish that:
“We need to know what you need, who you are looking for (and then) make very micro-targeted plans. That is what really works. Real Jobs (is all about) sitting down with folks to try to come up with those plans … so we can grow the regional economy.
Infrastructure is not just roads in bridges, but more increasingly is technology. With Rhode Island broadband rates among the highest in the nation, that needs to change, said consultant Ashley Medeiros.
It’s telling, she said, taht while Rhode Island has among the best fiber optics infrastructure in the United States, it’s not really being used and is prohibitively expensive, with broadband coverage costing many multiples of what it costs just a few miles down the road in Taunton.
“We have more fiber optic coverage in Rhode Island than any other state by far,” she said, but it is not being used by the private sector because it was built through state and federal grants and cannot be used by non-profits, municipalities, schools and government entities. Most of the state’s capability is going unused she said, so there are moves afoot to work with for-profit for providers and hopefully allow that coverage to be expanded out into the private sector.
Currently, she said, some businesses are telling her that in some cases, they’re paying as much as $4,700 per month for high speed broadband coverage, and paying it. But few can afford such costs.
“That’s a huge problem,” she said. “There is so much (more) that we could do if we had (private) access to this broadband line.”