How New Government Has Rhode Island On A New Economic Trajectory
Rhode Island is in the middle of an economic rebound to the point where residents and leaders are trying to rename the region “Cranetown,” thanks to education and business-friendly initiatives sparked by new leadership at the State House.
“Things are happening,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said at Bisnow’s The Future of Providence and Rhode Island event Tuesday morning. “There is momentum like I’ve never seen before in Rhode Island.
The state has had a robust 2017, with each month outperforming year-over-year. The latest Current Conditions Index report for the state, released Monday by University of Rhode Island economics professor Leonard Lardaro, shows the state’s economy improved in August for the eighth month in a row. The strong performance is most evident with the state’s 4.3% unemployment rate, which is lower than the national average less than three years after the Ocean State had the highest unemployment rate in the country.
“In reading the materials that we speak to now, sometimes I have to pinch myself because it’s all coming to fruition,” Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White said.
The Raimondo administration is widely seen as the turning point in Rhode Island’s economic path forward. The state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2001, and private sector unemployment is at an all-time high. Since taking office in 2015, Raimondo has focused her government’s attention on making the state more attractive to businesses. This has been achieved through a development toolkit that includes changes to the state’s education curriculum, the Rhode Island Qualified Jobs Incentive Act and the Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credit and enhancements to the state's infrastructure.
“I call it the triple-T toolkit: talent, tax structure and incentives and transportation,” Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor said.
The governor worked with Microsoft, Brown University and the University of Rhode Island on a partnership to deliver an initiative that brings computer science classes to every student, beginning in kindergarten. The Computer Science for Rhode Island Initiative is the first of its kind in the nation, which Raimondo attributes to questions she has fielded when working to bring new business to the state.
“They say, ‘Don’t talk about skills now. Tell me about the talent pipeline,’” Raimondo said.
The state also works to retain the tech-savvy students it educates. The 2015 Wavemaker Fellowship provides a tax credit to pay down college debt for college graduates who receive a science, technology, engineering or math degree and are employed full time in a Rhode Island STEM job. Recognizing the state’s significant design programs at such colleges as the Rhode Island School of Design, arts have been added to the student loan forgiveness initiative, turning STEM to STEAM.
The statewide push to grow new talent (and keep it), as well as business-friendly tax initiatives that include refunding personal income taxes generated by new jobs, is working.
There have been 17 business relocation or expansion deals in the state in the same number of months, including GE Digital, a Johnson & Johnson health technology center and wellness technology company Virgin Pulse. Raimondo referenced a Gallup study the year before she was elected that placed Rhode Island last in the country for job growth. The 2017 study now ranks her state 28th.
“And we’re on our way to No. 1,” Raimondo said.