2010-09-16 / Front Page

R.I. must avoid ‘stand alone’ attitude, says Stokes

By Geoff Campbell

Keith Stokes Keith Stokes During a stuttering economy, strong economic leadership is essential – that was the message delivered by Keith Stokes, executive director of the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, during his Sept. 8 keynote address for 2020 Vision, an interactive speaker series sponsored by the Newport County Fund and the Newport Daily News at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center.

Stokes wasted no time getting to the critical issues facing Rhode Island’s economy.

“We are not Texas or California,” he said. “This is not a stand-alone economy.”

Stokes, who served for 15 years as the executive director of the Newport Chamber of Commerce, framed his argument in a geographic context, saying that Rhode Island is inexorably tied to New England’s economy in a broad sense and most specifi- cally, to Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“Thirty minutes equals 30 miles,” he said, referring to the ability of companies to cross the Rhode Island state line to find property, a better educated work force and a more welcoming tax structure – all while maintaining a customer base in Rhode Island.

Fast-growth industry in Rhode Island is technology based, according to Stokes. He pointed out that “nearly one half of all [Rhode Island] employees do not have any level of post secondary education.”

Stokes also said that he has been surprised by the willingness of Rhode Islanders to “embrace a low-self esteem view of the state.”

To promote sustainable economic growth, Stokes shared these musts for Rhode Island:

• Compete and achieve in a New England-based economy.

• Build a sustainable economy that plays to its natural assets and re-align its cost structures to be competitive within New England.

• Recognize that a robust economy fuels sustained growth in tax revenue and citizen wealth.

In light of a growing state deficit, Stokes said that regulatory reform is essential to make business location in Rhode Island more attractive. A growing corporate tax base will forestall increasing the tax burden on individuals or reducing services by state and local agencies, he said.

Capital, cost, land and labor are the four essential components of growing a robust economy, according to Stokes.

“A flexible capital credit product” is necessary to make funding available to intellectual property start-ups, he said. He was quick to add, however, that creative capital programming does not equate to government handouts.

Stokes referred to the use of a state-supported loan guarantee of Curt Shilling’s high-tech gaming enterprise, 38 Studios, as an example of flexible and creative capital programming that promotes job growth.

“The cost of doing business is code for taxes,” Stokes said.

He added that the RIEDC is focused on a tax realignment plan to create a “fair share” approach to the tax burden, and regulatory reform to make licensing and permitting a more user-friendly process.

The RIEDC recently added a director-level position intended to assist small businesses with the regulatory process. Making that process friendlier is an immediate goal, he said.

Maintaining an inventory of building sites fosters the growth of light industry, which is key to achieving a strong economy, according to Stokes. Preliminary work is being done to make the Route 24 corridor an entry point for business rather than an exit point, he said. He also mentioned the planned re-alignment of Route 195 as an opportune location for new business.

“Clusters of life science institutions, ready to grow, need pad-ready land,” and there is an “extraordinary opportunity to develop Navy land,” Stokes said.

In 2011, the first release of Navy land in Melville will occur, he said.

“CCRI serves as the nexus for work force training,” Stokes said. Labor force enhancement is a major opportunity for economic growth, he said, adding, “99% of CCRI students are Rhode Islanders” – which is not true of the state’s other post-secondary institutions.

Stokes added that CCRI students are potential work force members in transition – in many cases, those seeking to make employment and career changes. Stokes sees the potential to develop a workforce that can better compete with neighboring states as key, he said.

In summary, Stokes linked economic success to the state’s assets. Capitalizing on hospitality and tourism, national defense spending, renewable energy sources and the potential expansion of the Navy will be important to sustainable economic growth, he said.

Following Stokes’ address, breakout sessions discussed education and job training, business development and retention, and leadership and collaboration.

2010 Vision organizers, Sheila Mullowney, executive editor of the Newport Daily News, and Joyce Botelho, philanthropy offi cer for the Rhode Island Foundation’s Newport County Fund, added several local government and foundation partners, which allowed for expansion of the program. Next week’s topic is renewable energy.

For more information about the 2020 Vision series, contact the Newport County Chamber of Commerce at 847-1600 or email info@newportchamber.com.

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