Powerbrokers, gathered at Brown
For a day, at least, it didn’t seem crazy to be optimistic about Rhode Island’s economic prospects.
A who’s who of the state’s political, business and nonprofit leaders gathered midday Monday to witness the opening of Brown University’s $45 million new medical school building in the heart of the Jewelry District. The former Nemo jewelry factory on Richmond Street is now a state-of-the-art marvel; each future doctor is equipped with an iPad, and there are no books in its library.
Two hours after the Brown ribbon-cutting, a surprisingly large number of movers and shakers – again including Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras – crowded into the mayor’s office to see Jim Bennett, a businessman and former gubernatorial candidate, introduced as the capital city’s new economic development director.
Despite year after year of double-digit unemployment and growing fears of another recession, the mood at both events was bullish and buoyant. And perhaps for good reason. As often as we talk about the game-changing possibilities for the land freed up by moving I-195, it was eye-opening – and exhilarating – to look out from the upper floors of Brown’s new building and take in the potential of those 41-plus acres.
Then again, Rhode Island has always had potential. What it hasn’t always had are leaders wise enough and shrewd enough to harness that potential for the greater good. Ian Donnis summed it up well a few years ago when he reviewed years of efforts at organized economic development: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
That makes the redevelopment of the 195 land a true test of Rhode Island’s elite. It gives this generation of local leaders a nearly blank slate they can use to put their stamp on Providence, which is why Chafee called this “a catalytic moment” in the state’s history. They have a chance to position the city and the state to thrive for decades, and a powerful new commission to get it done. Are they up to the job?
One factor that could help is that the state’s political leaders seem to be on the same page. Brown President Ruth Simmons got a round of applause when she said “I thank God” for the state’s four-man congressional delegation, all of whom attended today’s ceremony. They are dogged in their pursuit of federal funds for their home state, and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s position on the Senate Appropriations Committee is key on that score.
Chafee and Taveras also have a good working relationship – they sat next to each other at Brown, and Bennett stood between them when he was introduced – as do their respective administrations. That kind of cooperation and coordination is vital in a tiny place like Rhode Island, which is economically a city-state centered around Providence. Bennett, who owned a business in Warwick and was active in Republican politics, already knows Chafee and his team and was tapped by the new governor to oversee the convention center.
Bennett’s remarks were energetic, if light on specifics. He cast himself as a salesman for the city, a roving economic ambassador who’s job is to sell the private sector on Providence and bring together the right people, and emphasized the development of the port (“200 miles closer to Europe than any other eastern port”) and changes to zoning rules. But Bennett will face fierce headwinds from a sputtering national economy and the city’s financial mess, including its woefully underfunded pension system – Taveras’ next big priority.
The medical school will be an important anchor for the Jewelry District (now dubbed “the Knowledge District”). It’s already surrounded by biomedical companies with ties to the university, including NABsys and Isis Biopolymer, and it could eventually have a fitting neighbor in URI’s planned nursing school. A group of first-year medical students, who started classes today, said they were excited to finally have a real campus after 37 years.
“Providence is on its way back, and so is Rhode Island,” Mayor Taveras said this afternoon. Let’s hope so.
Tim White contributed reporting. Nesi’s Nightcap will return on Tuesday.
(photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)