Rhode Island is pivoting from a business-friendly pandemic response that stood out in the Northeast to a business-friendly future built on the Ocean State’s young talent pool, geographic advantages, innovation infrastructure and public-private partnership ethos that values prosperity and progress as well as equity.
It’s the smallest state, but that stature has helped business and government leaders in Rhode Island focus effectively on leveraging the state’s strengths for the new-era economy. Getting each major player “in the room” at once in the capital city of Providence—from corporate, political, labor and not-for-profit worlds—happens frequently and facilitates strategic agreement and certainty that helped the state leap by three spots in Chief Executive’s “Best & Worst States for Business” for 2021.
“We’re fortunate to have a real strong foundation that’s been set over the last number of years to embrace growth for businesses in our state and embrace people who might want to settle their businesses in Rhode Island,” says Governor Dan McKee, who served for six years as lieutenant governor before succeeding former Governor Gina Raimondo, whom President Joe Biden in January appointed as U.S. Commerce Secretary.
“As a small-business owner myself and former mayor,” McKee says, “I know the value of a strong economy here and understand these factors.”
Rhode Island set the stage for robust growth in the ongoing recovery with its lack of restraint on companies amid Covid and agreement with them on health and safety protocols. “As a result, we believe with justification that the industrial and construction sectors are increasingly aware of Rhode Island’s affinity for them,” says Stefan Pryor, the state’s commerce secretary.
In the U.S. Northeast, as the pandemic wanes, Providence has become one of the region’s few metro areas attracting rather than losing millennials on a net basis, a distinction that Rhode Island leaders expect to grow as offices repopulate. “Rhode Island is fantastically placed between Boston and New York, and if you’re only going into the office two days a week from now on, there’s even more opportunity for workers to enjoy the fantastic quality of life here, much lower prices and our beauty,” says Tom Giordano, executive director of the Partnership for Rhode Island.
The most ambitious and defining effort by Rhode Island to take advantage of its attributes is to build on the momentum of the Block Island Wind Farm. The existing five-turbine array is America’s first foray into offshore generation of wind power, but it’s only the start of a planned 50-turbine constellation expected to help provide 100 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity needs by 2030. The state is supporting the effort with a new innovation center in Providence that already hosts eight wind-related enterprises.
The state’s push behind wind power is a pillar of “one of the most flourishing ‘blue’ economies and innovation economies in the country,” says David Hardy, CEO of Ørsted U.S., part of the Danish company that is operating and expanding the Block Island Wind Farm. “Rhode Island has a strong commitment to a renewable energy future.”
Josh Brumberger believes the progress of wind power “shows Rhode Island’s capability of leading around really complex issues because of our unique ability to get all the stakeholders from the public and private sectors together to move big, ambitious projects forward.” The CEO of Providence-based Utilidata, a provider of software for operating utilities, says the wind farm “represents the possible here, and doing it around something as important as climate-related initiatives is all the better.”
The “possible” in Rhode Island depends heavily on recognition by business and political leaders that the state must continually wage a war for talent that remains in short supply amid the national economic recovery. The state “makes higher education and workforce development a priority,” says Hardy, specifically citing strong university programs in environmental and marine affairs and a “close partnership” with Rhode Island’s building trades that is “crucial to securing the skilled labor we’ll need to build our wind farms.”
The state also has a qualified-jobs incentive program that rebates companies a portion of the personal income taxes they generate by creating jobs in Rhode Island, and the Rebuild Rhode Island tax credit, in which the state co-invests in companies’ development and overhaul of physical facilities such as manufacturing plants and mixed-use complexes.
An extra incentive? Rhode Island’s Wavemaker Fellowship, which enables graduates of college STEM and design programs to shed much or all of their student debt by committing themselves to jobs in the state. “It’s another carrot our companies can extend in order to attract and retain talent,” Governor McKee says.