The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIMay 25th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. An iconic local property is empty, with its famous corporate tenant gone. Politicians want to see the place occupied and thriving, but the developer says he needs government support. Think it’s the Superman building? Think again – this was Boston’s Downtown Crossing, longtime home of Filene’s Basement. Back in 2010 Steve Roth, chairman of the developer that owned Downtown Crossing, boasted about using a “blight” strategy in New York City: “I was thinking in my own awkward way, that the more the building was a blight, the more the governments would want this to be redeveloped; the more help they would give us when the time came. And they did.” After hearing this, an outraged Mayor Menino threatened to seize the Downtown Crossing site by eminent domain, and eventually revoked Roth’s permits; a new developer is now in place. Here in Providence, High Rock Development says the economics of the Superman building won’t work for the firm without a public subsidy to convert it into apartments – and High Rock also says it won’t sell, leaving the structure in limbo. Spokesman Bill Fischer told me High Rock won’t rule out mothballing the Superman building, either: “That’s not a political tactic; it’s just sound real estate to take a step back and say, who can we get in there?” The tale of Downtown Crossing, though, illustrates why Rhode Islanders are wary: developers know they have serious leverage when they control the fate of a beloved local landmark, and they may not be afraid to use it.
2. A programming note: I’ll be away next week but never fear – Nesi’s Notes will be as good as ever. I’ve commissioned thought-provoking guest posts from four Rhode Islanders that are sure to spark some debate. Plus, my colleagues Dan McGowan and Tim White will be posting their usual must-read reports on the blog as always. (And yes, the individual entries are called posts – not “blogs.”) Check in every day and follow @NesisNotes_WPRI on Twitter. I’ll be back June 4.
3. Speaking of Dan McGowan, here’s his weekly dispatch to the Post: “With Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras already jockeying for position ahead of their seemingly inevitable Democratic gubernatorial primary next year, it will be worth watching how aggressive the Young Democrats of Rhode Island get in supporting either candidate. The group – whose president is former Anthony Gemma spokesman Alex Morash – recently voted to amend its bylaws to allow the organization to endorse candidates in primaries. ‘It is important to have more young people involved in the democratic process and we want to assist people running,’ Morash told WPRI.com, adding: ‘The next step will be forming a PAC.’ The change to allow endorsements would seemingly benefit Taveras – the board is filled with progressive organizers – but Morash said it’s too early to tell which candidate will win the Young Dems’ support.”
4. An important clarification to last week’s column item about the proposed Ocean State Regional Water Authority. I wrote that the authority would be exempt from oversight by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission, but that’s an exaggeration: the commission wouldn’t have oversight over any sale or lease agreement entered into by the authority, but water rates and water quality would be overseen. Providence Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley, who backed the proposal, acknowledged to me the outlook for passage this year isn’t promising, but he’s not giving up. “I think the bill is a complex piece of legislation that has many good things that’s going to take people a while to digest,” Smiley said. “It may be a two-session endeavor.”
5. A fascinating longread from The New Republic: “The Science of Loneliness: How Isolation Can Kill You.”
6. Time for a checkup with the congressional delegation. … President Obama has nominated Jack Reed’s legal counsel and senior policy adviser, Kara Stein, to serve on the SEC. “Kara is a real expert on securities law and a dedicated public servant,” Reed said in a statement. “She has earned bipartisan trust and respect. Her departure will be a loss for my office and a real gain for the SEC and those it protects.” … Sheldon Whitehouse got some favorable publicity for gently correcting Chuck Grassley on the definition of “court-packing.” The publicity was less favorable for Whitehouse’s ill-timed Senate speech about Oklahoma tornadoes and climate change. … Ben Veghte of Social Security Works took to HuffPo to defend David Cicilline after PolitiFactRI‘s latest ruling, writing: “Rather than misinterpreting his words, [Cicilline] should be congratulated – certainly given the benefit of the doubt – for having such a keen understanding of the issue that he could respond to a question in a live interview so thoughtfully.” … Jim Langevin is concerned about implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, telling WPRO: “Obamacare was designed to exempt over 96% of businesses from the employer-responsibility requirements; however, that has proved little consolation to many Rhode Island small-business owners I have heard from who are attempting to make sense of the new law.”
7. Lincoln Chafee, 60, isn’t sure whether Hillary Clinton, 65, will have the stamina to mount a 2016 presidential campaign. When the Brown Political Review asked the governor whether he thinks Clinton will run, Chafee replied: “I do, at least that’s her plan right now. I don’t know whether the fatigue will set in, whether she can really keep this up. She’s going to do a book and then go on a book tour and eventually, it’s going to catch up to her. It seems like we just ended ’12 but that’s the sport that we’re in.”
8. What’s going on in Coventry? The rural community of 35,000 has been fertile ground for a slow-moving taxpayer revolt against obligations run up by the town’s various government jurisdictions. Most famously there’s the Central Coventry Fire District, which is just months away from liquidation after running a deficit of nearly $1 million [pdf] in 2011-12. Among other debts, the tiny fire district has an unfunded pension liability of $3.3 million. (The numbers are hard to pin down because, unlike cities and towns, Rhode Island’s 91 special districts don’t file financial audits with the state.) And then there’s the bizarre case of the orphaned Coventry Teachers Association/School Related Personnel Pension Plan, which has an unfunded liability of $23 million that town leaders say isn’t their problem. As Tim White and I reported this week, the retirements of hundreds of Coventry workers are riding on whether a solution is found, and state leaders are quite concerned. It’s understandable that Coventry taxpayers may be frustrated about the town’s fiscal situation, but it’s not clear how these two revolts will end.
9. WGBH was kind enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “Under the Radar,” Callie Crossley’s program about overlooked news stories across New England. My contributions were Rhode Island’s weak economy and the Superman building. (Hey, it’s mostly a Massachusetts audience!) The show airs Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on 89.7 FM, so I hope you’ll tune in.
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – a look at Rhode Island’s agricultural revival with Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Noah Fulmer and Blue Skys Farm’s Christina Dedora. Watch a special showing Monday at 10:30 p.m. after the news on Fox, or catch it during the usual times: Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV, or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox. Dan McGowan will be here next Saturday morning, and I’ll be back in two weeks. Have a good Memorial Day Weekend!
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