In late 2011 and into early 2012, the state’s Small Business Loan Fund was making three to five transactions a month. Since then, almost nothing has gone out. The fund now has $3.5 million available to lend, up from $700,000 a year ago, thanks to repayments and the lack of new loans.
The R.I. Economic Development Corporation, which administers the SBLF, says that the fund’s activity has suffered thanks to the state’s small-business community assuming first that the 38 Studios collapse had shut down the program – it hadn’t – and then not wanting to get involved, thanks in part to fear the state would sue if something went bad, as the state has done with the 38 Studios deal principals.
But there is more. A little more than 16 months ago, the federal government allocated $13.1 million to the Ocean State to be split among the SBLF, startup accelerator Betaspring and the Slater Technology Fund. SBLF’s inaction may have delayed the release of the second tranche and could do the same to the third.
To the EDC’s credit, it has taken some of the SBLF money and advanced it to Betaspring and Slater, which has allowed the second round of funding to come through. And the SBLF reports that it is finally seeing an upswing in activity, although it’s not what it was before 38 Studios. But this issue shines light on a much larger problem.
The EDC is a toolbox – and the SBLF is one of the tools in the box. But Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee’s lack of a comprehensive economic- development plan – and his refusal to reform the agency – has kept the EDC from being an effective generator of economic growth. In the current economic climate, that is just not good enough.