This time government is in the room for discussions about the future of the Rhode Island economy, but it is only one source of debate among business leaders.
The newest series of private-sector conversations on how to improve the Rhode Island economy is being used to guide the state’s Rhode Map strategic plan and on some level the R.I. Economic Development Corporation.
As a result, where the Make It Happen forums last year overtly steered clear of government problems and solutions, this year’s “Intersections” debate, as it’s called by the EDC, faces them.
And like the broader population, business leaders attending the eight different focus-group-style discussions last week about the economy, were far from unanimous on whether state government should lead, help or get out of the way.
“The biggest economic opportunity is an about-face in the legislature,” said Daniel Shedd, president of manufacturer Taylor Box in Warren during the manufacturing/design/makers session last week. “What can the state do? Leave us alone,” Shedd said, although he noted public education and job training are critical. What he really wants, he said, is better value for this tax dollars.
Others argued there are valuable roles the state government can fill to help local companies, from workforce training to marketing to funding social-ventures enterprises to boost particular industries.
“We have to get over the 38 Studios mentality,” said Aidan Petrie, co-founder and chief innovation officer at medical-device maker Ximedica in Providence. “Policy is too slow and indirect. Let’s talk about high-value areas.”
Yet while the role of government may be the fastest way to spark debate among businesspeople, the sessions being held this fall show even greater differences of outlook based on organization type and market.
In fact, bringing together different branches of related industries is a central purpose of these latest events sponsored by The Rhode Island Foundation.
Along with manufacturing and design, the events also bring together, among other groups, biotech with public health, finance with real estate and technology with software.
Some of the biggest divisions appeared to be between those who identify with younger, innovation businesses or startups and older companies focused on an established product.