By Matt Sheley
Daily News staff writer
Originally posted 1/6/2018 to http://www.newportri.com/fb6d2ca7-e420-5aec-9b5f-89258ab4724c.html
NEWPORT -- Newport is already an international tourist destination. Now, thanks to a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, private businesses and half a dozen local municipalities, the hope is to make the region an international business destination, too.
Starting next week, consultants from Fourth Economy will meet with economic and industry leaders about what’s working here and where the business climate could do better to help them thrive.
The initiative will be rolled out formally at the Chamber’s annual meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 31, from 5:30-8 p.m. at Ocean Cliff on Ridge Road, where Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth and Tiverton officials are expected to mix with area business people.
“Newport is on the map as a tremendous destination, but there’s no question there’s room for more business and growth,” said Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce.
“Fourth Economy will help put us more on the business map with marketing and data and tell our story of excellent quality of life and a skilled workforce. Most importantly, the goal is to support our existing businesses and help them realize growth and expansion from within and then focus on what we can do to help new businesses call this place home.”
Year-round, millions of people from across world come to Newport and the surrounding communities to enjoy all the area has to offer. In 2017, the area had an estimated 3.5 million visitors.
According to Donovan-Boyle and Fourth Economy President and CEO Rich Overmoyer, the problem is while many want to spend their free time here, they can be reluctant to do business in the area.
Sure, there’s a robust tourist industry and the defense economy is strong due to the presence of Naval Station Newport, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Naval War College and those related businesses. But in many ways, it largely stops there.
However, Donovan-Boyle, Overmoyer and others say it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Part of the reason we applied for the job when we heard about it was because of Newport and the region,” Overmoyer said. “There’s so much awareness and belief in the area already as a destination. I can tell you from personal experience, there are a lot of places around the country that would pay an awful lot of money to attract 3.5 million visitors a year and that’s already happening here. We need to find ways to better capitalize on that.”
The idea for the local public-private business partnership is not a new one.
It was the brainchild of former Chamber Executive Director Jody Sullivan, who broached the idea at a strategic retreat with community leaders before her retirement in 2015.
Supporters of that proposal said it didn’t move forward because of questions about how it would be funded, not because it lacked support.
Donovan-Boyle said that after meeting with area government and business leaders for months, the idea started taking shape and more groups signed on board.
To start out, she said each community would provide what they could, with the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and BankNewport pitching in major assistance as well. While detailed figures weren’t available this week, Newport and Middletown both are expected to pay $20,000-$25,000 for the effort, money that is already included in their current fiscal 2018 budgets.
Given the potential of the undertaking, Middletown Town Administrator Shawn Brown said that amount was short money. Like most of the other local municipalities, Middletown does not have a dedicated staff for economic development, but rather the town relies on existing personnel to handle the job as their schedules allow.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time and it’s nice to see Jody’s idea coming to fruition,” Brown said. “This is one of those areas where regionalization makes sense. There’s documented data that shows regional economic development groups do better than when we go it alone.”
Brown said for some, it isn’t easy to give up the competition typically associated with economic development.
“It’s a competitive environment and the thing people began to realize is that even if that business stays where it is or goes to another local community, it benefits all of us,” Brown said. “To look at this from a tax only perspective is shortsighted. There are a number of other factors that are part of the equation that help everyone at the table.”
Donovan-Boyle said Fourth Economy was selected from a pool of four qualified applicants. She said the Pittsburgh-based firm was chosen because of its familiarity with Rhode Island, innovative perspective and its depth of ideas about how to help the local economy.
As part of its work with the partnership, Fourth Economy will have a full-time employee on the ground here to meet with existing businesses looking to stay or new ones considering a move to the local area.
Without committing too much to any one direction, they said selling the region’s economic presence more online, at trade conferences and other avenues will be key components of the effort.
Making better use of existing relationships with organizations like Discover Newport could also play a role. Donovan-Boyle said nonprofit group does an excellent job selling the City-by-the-Sea as a tourist destination across the globe, so subtly including economic development in that message could work wonders.
But most importantly is getting those 3.5 million guests here annually to think about Newport and its neighbors not just as a good place to visit, but to live and work, too, they said.
“In general, when you talk to businesses, the model has changed somewhat,” Overmoyer said. “Yes, tax incentives and financing do play a role, but if you don’t have the talent base and the quality of life as a place where people want to live, you’re never going to compete.”
As Fourth Economy gets more solidified in the area and shows tangible results, Donovan-Boyle said the funding model might shift for their work, relying more on grants and the business community itself.
There will be a set of metrics used to quantify their returns so backers could see they’re getting a return on their investment.
“If you look at what’s going on with the economy, there are such strong assets,” Overmoyer said. “Obviously, the presence of the Navy is critical, but so is the tourism, the medical component, (information technology) and manufacturing and we’re here to help it grow. It’s a dynamic place and we just want to help give it a bit of a push.”
“One of the reasons this initiative was launched even before I came on board was because of the prime location and changing nature of the workplace,” Donovan-Boyle said. “Besides having a quality of life that is second to none, there’s such great access here to Boston and New York City. Literally, you can live here and commute one or two days a week and you get the best of both worlds. We need to sell that more than we are right now.”