RI must get over the Schilling crash

Jun 15, 2012

The crash of the 38 Studios-Curt Schilling video game deal has sent shivers through Rhode Island’s economic development efforts. RIPR’s Scott MacKay has some thoughts on how we can get our jobs mojo back.

It is bad enough that Rhode Island state government has become a national laughingstock and media piñata for the foolish $75 million taxpayer bet on Red Sox legend Schilling’s ill-fated video game foray.

What’s worse is the collateral damage. It’s as if  the 38 Studios bankruptcy has become a hand grenade that has severely wounded Rhode Island’s attempts to move our economy out of its recession-racked doldrums.

Since the collapse of 38 Studios, our state’s job-development efforts have stalled on several crucial levels. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Davol Square has been crippled because Brown University laid off staff. The General Assembly’s refusal to support the proposed joint University of Rhode Island-Rhode Island College nursing school in Providence’s old Jewelry manufacturing neighborhood is a setback for the state and city’s attempts to build a medical research cluster in what was being rebranded as the Knowledge District.

This comes on the heels of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s decision to retreat from a public-private partnership designed to promote our state’s largest city as a center of knowledge and research. And coming layoffs at the state Department of Labor and Training are certain to hurt initiatives to retrain workers or 21st Century jobs.

It’s time for Rhode Island to learn from the Curt Schilling mistake and move on. The overarching lesson is clear: Government is crucial to creating the conditions for economic growth but not so good at picking winners and losers in the unremitting churn of capitalism.

So we need to refocus our economic development efforts to highlight our assets and get government to concentrate on what it does well. At the state and federal level, it was government subsidies that built the transcontinental railroads, Interstate highways, the Internet and our state colleges and universities. Government subsidies and regulation gave us a cleaner Narragansett Bay and provided the historic preservation programs that are magnets for tourism to our state.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state business and education leaders have jetted to Houston and Pittsburgh to study how those cities have melded educational and medical institutions to drive economic rebirth. What they should do is jump on the government-subsidized MBTA or Amtrak trains for a gander at what Boston and Cambridge have done to attract 21st Century jobs.

Massachusetts has a high-technology council comprised of companies in those businesses. Rhode Island does not. Boston has developed public-private partnerships to keep young college graduates in the city. Rhode Island has a nascent program sponsored by the Association of   Independent Colleges and Universities, but so far only the Rhode Island Foundation has stepped up to help finance it  - government and business have not.

Massachusetts has an unemployment rate of 6 percent; Rhode Island is at 11 percent. The Bay State has made big investments in higher education in recent years. Rhode Island has not.

Boston has a joint state, city and private sector program that gives start-up knowledge companies free office space and technical help to locate in the South Boston Innovation District. Providence’s Knowledge District is nowhere near as far along. Boston’s business community has web sites and outreach programs to match smart young college students with internships. Why aren’t we doing that?

It is true that Providence is never going to Boston, which is one of the eight or ten places in the world where new ideas are turned into commerce. Boston is a major league city; we are a triple A city.

Since the days of the Greenhouse Compact in the 1980s, Rhode Island government has produced study after study on how to leverage our assets: the marine and medical industries, education and design. But too often our politicians have ignored the obvious and supported one-shot deals that did little more than line the pockets of   the usual suspects in the banks, law firms and construction industries.

Ok, so former Gov. Don Carcieri and the Democratic legislative leaders made a really dumb decision on Curt Schilling’s video games. So now we have a choice: play the usual Rhode Island blame game, pointing fingers for political gain. And wallow in our state’s historic inferiority complex, shrug our shoulders and say, hey “only in Rhode Island.’’

Or the citizens of a state that has been around for nearly four centuries can stop viewing economic development through the prism of  a washed-up ballplayer’s skewed dream and embrace sensible policies that will bring a better future to a state that is too often mired in the past.

Which way will it be Rhode Island?