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Published in Providence Business News (December 1-7, 2003)

“If you build it, they will come.”
While this sentiment from Field of Dreams may not translate into an affordable model for state economic development in Rhode Island, its converse does hold some lessons for the State.

If government won’t build it, and won’t help business build it, they will not come.

Consider the experience of a client several years back, when the company sought to expand in-state by developing a fabricating facility at Quonset Point. It was months before the State provided all basic and relevant information for the property – property that it owned and wanted to sell.

Yet while the client was waiting for this information, it was contacted by economic development officials in a southern state, unaware the firm was actively considering a new facility. Theirs was a “cold call” to a business in an industry the State had targeted for expansion.

Within days, the southern economic development officials provided the company with detailed information on a site, permitting requirements, and a deadline when all permits should be in hand and construction could begin. They also promised to assist in all state and federal permitting and provided detailed information on an impressive array of economic development incentives for which the company qualified.

At that time, Rhode Island could not even begin to compete with that kind of focused economic development activity from competitor states.

Since that time things have improved greatly in Rhode Island. Having represented out-of-state businesses looking to relocate to Rhode Island, as well as in-state business looking to expand in Rhode Island, this writer knows Rhode Island is competitive in many respects.

The General Assembly, working with State economic development officials, has provided wide-ranging tax benefits, employment and training incentives, and other grant and assistance programs which make Rhode Island extremely competitive among the northeastern states.

But these incentives are of little use if a business can’t find sites with highway access, utilities to the perimeter, and other infrastructure available and ready for prompt permitting. And therein lies the problem in Rhode Island.

There are simply too few sites for the development of significant facilities, and the period from when a business indicates its interest in developing a new facility in Rhode Island to the actual commencement of construction can be several years.

That’s a long time when Rhode Island is competing with a number of other states where economic development activity is aggressive and is conducted by state officials in close coordination with municipal officials, educational institutions in the state (to provide the trained workforce for targeted industries) and local business leaders who are boosters. When leading business executives from another state come to Rhode Island to visit a CEO, as they have done, to extol the benefits of doing business in their state, it has an impact.

That’s why Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Michael McMahon had it exactly right when he acknowledged to a group of Chamber of Commerce leaders recently that there has to more of an emphasis on facilitating the development of “ready to build” sites for industrial, commercial and office park use, which includes making Quonset Point more competitive, such as by upgrading Quonset Point’s infrastructure.

While it is up to EDC precisely how to address this, as for Quonset Point, which the State controls, it could consider ensuring that every business interested in locating at Quonset Point would receive the following:

  • Site survey
  • Location and capacity of all utilities (water/electric/gas/sewer/storm water/telecommunications),
    which should be at the perimeter of every development site
  • Wetlands delineation, current and approved by DEM
  • Soil compaction tests
  • Current environmental site assessments
  • Current zoning restrictions
  • Current title report
  • List of permitting required for site development, with agencies and timing,
    and a commitment of EDC assistance
  • List of special environmental permits which may be required for particular facilities

And while the State could not do the same for sites it does not control, perhaps the General Assembly would consider tax benefits or other incentives to encourage the development of “ready to build” commercial, industrial and office sites to attract business.

Until Rhode Island has a coordinated program to make development sites available to business on a fast track basis, it will not get its fair share of new business and increased employment. Quite simply, business will build elsewhere.

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