|Donald Farish, president of Roger Williams University, was one of more than 300 at the two-day Make It Happen RI conference at the R.I. Convention Center, which is next door to the Providence Journal.|
My coverage of the Rhode Island Foundation's two-day Make It Happen RI conference ran page one in the Sunday paper, paired with Paul Grimaldi's excellent piece on leadership (or lack thereof) here in a state hobbled by a bad economy. Editor John Kostrzewa, who has led the Journal's Reinvent Rhode Island team all year, contributed an excellent column. Kate Bramson helped me with this piece, and they rest of the Reinvent crew essentially wrote the Saturday paper.
Forum participants say R.I. needs to boost its self-image
G. WAYNE MILLER
Publication Date: September 9, 2012
PROVIDENCE - An extraordinary two days of brainstorming ways to heal Rhode Island's sickly economy ended Saturday with the lively consensus that the state already has an abundance of resources, notably its people, to build a better tomorrow.
The mandate now, attendees at the concluding session of "Make it Happen RI" forum agreed, is -- well, making it happen.
Dozens of concrete ideas to accomplish just that were proposed at the Rhode Island Convention Center gathering, hosted by the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation.
Some would involve partnerships between government and the private sector. Others could be achieved by non-public initiatives alone. And some of those will begin almost immediately, participants promised, the exchange of ideas at the forum having inspired creative thinking and opened productive new connections.
"We know we need more specifics on some things," foundation head Neil D. Steinberg said. "We know we need additional leadership on some things. We know we need to get a lot done. I also know that there are things percolating all over you. You're groups of people, groups of companies, groups of institutions that have already started on the road to what we can get done."
The two-day conference brought together businesspeople large and small, artists, educators, financiers, designers, architects, health-care professionals, media members, manufacturers, planners, marketers, union leaders, philanthropists, social-service providers, lawyers, chamber of commerce officials, and others. Elected officials were not invited, in order that the forum not become politicized in this election season. But they will soon become involved in what is envisioned as an unfolding dialogue.
Some 330 people registered to attend the conference, prompting Steinberg to move it from the foundation's smaller downtown headquarters. Actual attendance was 304. Given that it was the second-to-last weekend of summer, the size of Saturday's crowd seemed evidence of true purpose.
"We have 150 people," Steinberg said. "The commitment is here."
One common theme of the forum was that Rhode Island does not need to import much of anything to lift itself from an economy with an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, second-worst in the nation. The state is blessed with natural beauty, central location, leading universities, a thriving cultural scene, world-class cuisine, a storied history, and a large bank of human capital -- the underpinnings of a thriving economy and a high quality of life. The state does not need a giant corporation landing here to be its savior (though that would be OK).
But Rhode Island suffers from a chronic and counter-productive negative self-image, in which the state's many positive assets are depressingly overshadowed by its economic problems, significant though they be, many participants agreed. The state needs therapy.
"Go beyond slogans and advertising campaigns to look into Rhode Island's soul to rebuild self-esteem," said facilitator Ed Caron, representing the views of those who attended one of Friday's two "Marketing Rhode Island" small-group discussions.
"Focus first on energizing Rhode Islanders," said Caron. "If you embrace the state's 'specialness,' the external marketing will follow."
A concrete way to achieve that, a speaker said, would be for local leaders and citizens to promote their communities through local and regional media. Another way would be bus tours to visit individuals and enterprises that are Rhode Island successes, though perhaps unpublicized.
A third opportunity would be slogans such as one already in use, "Providence: The Creative Capitol." Noting the large numbers of Rhode Island firms built with innovative designers --Hasbro being a prime example -- one speaker proposed the slogan "Rhode Island: A Lively Experiment by Design."
Caron called such initiatives key to a "unified statewide narrative" that would be an antidote to what another speaker called "wallowing in your mud puddle."
John C. Simmons, executive director of the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said that he began rewriting a report Governor Chafee requested on the Economic Development Corporation after Friday's session. He's weighing the role of government in the state's economic-development efforts and how that intersects with private businesses.
"The private sector really has a role," Simmons said, pointing to one idea that gained some traction -- resurrecting a Brown University-EDC funded project that helped bring entrepreneurs together. But maybe government shouldn't be funding such an effort, Simmons said after listening to people urge universities and successful businesses in Rhode Island to help fund such an initiative.
As did many others, Simmons spoke of the permitting process and how it needs to be fixed so it's easier for businesses. But he also noted that an EDC initiative to analyze the state's regulations is already working to fix that -- and the effort has been moved out of the EDC and into the newly created Office of Management and Budget.
Lisa Churchville, whose LGC Advisors provides consulting services, shared an idea from her group that would entice 50 new college graduates next year to commit to staying in Rhode Island for two years. They've dubbed their idea, "Rhode Island wants you to stay."
Next steps, Churchville said after the conference ended, would be to identify 50 meaningful jobs those graduates could do, develop an application process and attract funding, perhaps from colleges and universities that might be willing to forgive debt rather than give cash. Graduates would receive meaningful jobs here, low-cost housing, stipends, mentors, resumé help -- and even some college-loan forgiveness, Churchville said.
Among other highlights of other ideas generated during Saturday's session, which lasted from 9 a.m. to noon:
A proposal to have a joint public-private partnership develop new uses for the so-called Superman Building, which Bank of America, its last tenant, will vacate by spring.
A legislative agenda incorporating the best ideas in areas where government can help business.
A central business database.
A government "fast track" system for new businesses to receive permits and licenses in 90 days or less.
A Rhode Island "Peace Corps" in which recent college graduates would serve the nonprofit sector.
Steinberg had asked participants to propose initiatives that can be realized in the next 12 months or so, and said he will call them back in a year to see what has actually been achieved.
But only if something is achieved.
"We'll only do it if we can say 'we made it happen,' " Steinberg said. "There's no 'they' that will get this done. We have to realize the 'them' is us and we all need to step up."
He is optimistic all will.
A comprehensive listing of ideas -- along with a complete record of the two-day Make it Happen proceedings, and a means for the public to contribute -- will be available at the Foundation's Make it Happen page.
With reports from Staff Writer Kate Bramson.