Can RI gets its econ-development act together?

I take a long view at this question with my cover story in this week's Phoenix:

Once upon a time, there was a very smart man, Ira Magaziner, who devised a 1000-page plan — dubbed the Greenhouse Compact — to reinvent Rhode Island’s flagging economy by using $750 million in public investment to seed the high-tech businesses and high-wage jobs of the future. Yet despite broad support across business and labor, voters resoundingly rejected the plan because of concerns about prototypical Ocean State insider dealing.

That was in 1984.

Magaziner went on to work in the Clinton White House and to become a prosperous consultant. Yet 24 years later, the need to reinvent Rhode Island’s economic infrastructure — which remains anemic compared with most of its neighbors in New England — is more urgent than ever.

With a crushing $434 million deficit looming for the next fiscal year, the situation is exacerbated by how Rhode Island is just one of nine US states in a recession.

To name a few key indicators, the state is shedding jobs and residents; infrastructure is crumbling (weight restrictions have been placed on a few bridges, including one on Interstate 95 in Pawtucket); and corruption remains a concern (as seen by the ongoing trial in US District Court of two former officials with drug-store giant CVS, one of the few large corporations headquartered here). ....

Where are we headed? 

It’s enough to make one wonder, as Jimmy Breslin titled his book about the 1962 New York Mets — one of the worst teams in baseball history — “Can’t anybody here play this game?” (Even by this historic standard of incompetence, Rhode Island compares poorly; the Mets unexpectedly became world champions seven years later, in 1969 — in less than a third of the time that has elapsed since voters rejected the Greenhouse Compact.)

So, will the state continue on its current path, taking the proverbial two steps forward and three steps back?

It depends. Although the impending deficit means that things will get worse before they get better, the view of the future divides into two camps.

The optimists think the state’s short-term woes obscure positive changes that are setting the stage for a brighter future. Like the Greenhouse Compact before it, the EDC’s Economic Growth Plan 2008 targets the creation of more high-wage jobs and a strategic repositioning of the local economy.

Skeptics, however, think the state continues to nibble around the edges of real change, and that Rhode Island’s longtime status as the economic sick man of New England will persist without more dramatic action.

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