Monday, September 28, 2015

Time to put 38 Studios in the rear view

The last pitch of the year has been thrown at Fenway and all that remains of the Red Sox' 2015 season is a few meaningless games and the inevitable winter-long post mortem. New England sports writers are sharpening their pencils and planning their offseason shredding of the players, the staff and the front office. With the exception of the last few weeks of great games, this was a season to dissect and then forget. We've said it before: there's always next year.

A similar after-action analysis is happening in Rhode Island. With the release of a ridiculous number of documents from the failed 38 Studios deal, all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to wallow in the misery of a deal gone bad and relive the bad decisions that caused a big financial loss for Rhode Island's taxpayers.  Unlike the Red Sox season, there are no bright moments to remember and nothing to build upon - just another sad chapter in the long running Rhode Island series called "How not to run a state." From the desperate attempts of the Carcieri administration to get an economic development win to the backroom machinations of the now-incarcerated Speaker and his cronies, the documents give us insight into how the whole deal came to be — and then became unraveled. While members of the media are providing plenty of coverage and legislative leaders have agreed to hold hearings, I am left wondering whether an endless examination of the 38 Studios debacle is even productive.

Don't get me wrong - Rhode Islanders deserve transparency and we should hold any criminally culpable parties accountable - but the unfortunate truth is that we are unlikely to discover anything that we don't already know or suspect. I'm not sure if it makes me a cynic or an optimist but I think that focusing too much effort bemoaning the mistakes that were made is actually going to hold us back. As locals we don't appreciate some of the best things our state has to offer and our negativity prevents us from seeing - and promoting - our best attributes. Our bad attitude and our willingness to crow about how bad Rhode Island has created a self-fulfilling prophecy and so even the most optimistic Rhode Island cheerleaders are driven away. In order to be competitive, we are going to have to be attractive to businesses and sometimes that means a tax break or an incentive. A “never again” hangover from 38 Studios will stunt our growth as much as high tax rates. Other states have had similar failures in economic development - and certainly Rhode Island has managed to waste millions on other errors over the years - so we need to acknowledge 38 Studios for what it was - a big mistake - and then look ahead to better days.

Just as the Fenway Faithful don't walk away because of one bad season, we shouldn't give up on the Rhode Island’s economic recovery because of one deal gone south.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Delivering in the clutch

The Red Sox have been on a tear for the last few weeks, winning games they would have lost earlier in the season and piling up the runs when I was expecting goose eggs. There will be no playoff baseball in Boston but at least they are ending the season on a high note.
The season’s crescendo was reached on Saturday night when David Ortiz hit his 500th career home run—a feat only accomplished by 27 other major league players. While this alone does not punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame, it certainly adds to his list of qualifications (three world series rings, clutch hits) that will put him in consideration. For many fans, this countdown to 500 was the only reason to continue to watch the team this year so his accomplishment capped off the Red Sox season just as Labor Day weekend ended the official “try not to get run over by someone with New York plates” season in Rhode Island.
It’s all good of course. For as much as we’d like to evolve into something else, Rhode Island will always attract people because of our quaint towns and beautiful coastline. Tourism remains a bright spot since the economic recovery still feels like a wobbly one in Little Rhody: while unemployment is down we know that many people have moved or have just stopped looking. While tax receipts are up, we still look at empty office buildings downtown. We’re not South of the Border, but let’s face it, a lot is riding on our high season and thankfully we have state leaders that see that we need to promote ourselves and invest in key infrastructure to get a larger share of tourism dollars that are headed for New England.
The new ad campaign has yet to be launched but just like Big Papi’s big swing in Tampa, tourism seems to have delivered in the clutch with Newport predicting that this summer may have broken records for tourism dollars. Anchored by the overwhelming success of Newport’s Volvo Ocean Race stop—which attracted more than 125,000 people—Newport’s hotels were near capacity all summer. According to Discover Newport, in July alone, the lodging tax was up 36.5 percent over the previous year. It’s worth noting that the key to hosting the Volvo Ocean Race (which will be back in 2017) was significant public investment in restoring Fort Adams and building a facility that can hold world class sailing events.
People who turn their noses up at tourism efforts are also missing the big picture: when people experience a Rhode Island summer, they don’t want to leave. In order to grow our economy, we must attract new businesses, led by people who want to live here. While states like Alaska, Mississippi and Alabama have far lower taxes, business owners may find Rhode Island more appealing because of our proximity to New York and Boston, our great educational institutions, our culture of innovation—as well as our beautiful landmarks. Just like Papi’s 500th home run won’t be the one thing that gets him to Cooperstown, the sum of our assets will put Rhode Island’s economy back on firm ground again.