Thursday, May 1, 2014

I'm in Georgia State of Mind

With a start like this one I always have to remind myself that the first few weeks of baseball season are always a bit ugly. The fans look cold, the players are rusty and there’s a lot of “who’s that guy?” directed at the newest players. By the end of the season, the kinks are gone, faces are familiar and questions have changed. I remember Curt Schilling wearing a “Why Not Us?” tee shirt in 2004 taunting the Bambino and his curse.

I had the same feeling of “Why Not Us” when I was making my way home through the incredibly busy Atlanta airport late last week. I was in Georgia for work and had attended a lunch with more than 100 small business owners hosted by the Minority Business Roundtable. Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal was one of the featured speakers and is up for reelection this year. After being absorbed in the Rhode Island governor’s race I was looking forward to hearing someone I’ve never heard before make a pitch as to why he deserved another term as his state’s chief executive officer.

I’m glad I was sitting down because as Governor Deal started talking about what is going on in Georgia I might have fainted with envy. Georgia was named the #1 state business climate by Site Selection magazine, their unemployment rate is 7% (which Deal announced apologetically saying “we can do better”) and he noted that they are doing everything they can to improve traffic, even getting rid of toll booths to ease congestion. Deal talked about how Georgia has rolled out the welcome mat for the film industry noting that small businesses are taking root around the endless number of films being shot in Georgia (currently more than 40) and that by providing tax credits and working collaboratively with the studios, the state is third — behind California and New York — for number of films. Through the Hope Scholarship (which is funded entirely through lottery revenues) Georgia will fully fund the training of anyone who wants to go into a high-demand field including long-distance truck driving, practical nursing, early childhood education, diesel mechanics, welding, health technology and general information technology. Georgia is booming — and its leaders are actively making good policy choices too.

While I was waiting for my flight home I looked up Rhode Island in Site Selection magazine and this was the headline that pops out of the magazine’s search engine as most relevant: “Rhode Island Settles Land Spat, Clears Way for $100M Dow, Fidelity Expansions.” I thought this a bit odd -- I didn’t remember there being an issue or talk of these expansions. I looked a little deeper, saw a quote from Governor Almond and realized that this article was old. Yes, the last “most relevant” cite for Rhode Island in Site Selection was three governors ago. ACK.

Landing at sleepy T.F. Green (and to be fair, it was late) and seeing the promotional posters and displays got me thinking about what Rhode Island should be doing to be a little more like Georgia and a little less like well, Rhode Island. It doesn’t take a genius to see that a state like Georgia invests time and tax dollars in making itself more appealing. Our state tourism budget — which supports our state’s biggest economic sector — is just $400,000 a year. Our Film and TV Office website looks like it was “most relevant” in the Almond administration and features on its homepage a five year old economic development study and “NEW Rules and Regulations.” There is exactly one photo on the homepage and it’s of the State House. The message is clear: “welcome to Rhode Island, we promise to wrap you in bureaucracy and red tape and make you wish you never came here.”

I’m not the only one tooting this horn. CommerceRI and the Greater Providence Chamber have put together a great website for selling Rhode Island (, but with an absentee governor and the recent scandal in the General Assembly, our business community is rowing a boat with one oar. Any candidate for office must make economic growth a priority because we cannot fund our social service network, our children’s education or preserve our environment without a healthy economy. Instead of debating about an array of social issues or whether calamari is the top app, we need to ask “Why Not Us?” and then lay the groundwork to put Rhode Island on top.

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