RIC hosts Publick Occurrences forum on economic leadership  

RIC President Nancy Carriuolo speaks at the Publick Occurrences forum on Oct. 4.

No one can say for sure what role state government should play in Rhode Island’s economic development.

That question was the subject of much debate on Oct. 4 at the first of three “Publick Occurrences” forums this month on the troubled Rhode Island economy, sponsored by Rhode Island College, Leadership Rhode Island, and the Providence Journal.

“Economic Leadership: Who’s in Charge?” was the topic of the panel discussions, moderated by Karen Bordeleau, an acting executive editor of the Journal. Nancy Carriuolo, president of RIC, welcomed participants to the RIC campus. Some 210 people attended the two-hour event, held at Sapinsley Hall in the Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts on the RIC campus.

No definitive solutions were found, but discussion was lively and ranged far and wide on what can be done to revive the state’s economy. Panelists leading the discussion comprised representatives of higher education, state government, manufacturing, entrepreneurship and nonprofits.

But the views of those in the audience were not ignored. Audience members not only asked questions, they also provided responses to major questions through the use of iClicker technology. Students from RIC distributed to the audience 100 “clickers,” or small remote control devices that immediately register responses to basic questions; such devices have become increasingly common in political polling and focus groups nationwide.

 The audience was presented with three questions:

House Speaker Gordon Fox, left, Women & Infants Hospital CEO Constance Howes and Grow Smart R.I. Executive Director Scott Wolf were among the panelists at the forum.

Asked who should be in charge of the state’s economy, an overwhelming number -- 63 percent of the 100 polled – said the private sector should be, rather than government or educational institutions.

• Some 83 percent said they see state government as an “obstacle” in economic development rather than a leader.

• Asked what the state’s institutions of higher education could best do to foster economic development, 46 percent said create more business incubators and spinoff companies; 15 percent, work with the state to minimize the brain drain; and 39 percent, make higher education more affordable and accessible to students.

The sorry state of the economy is perhaps best expressed by these   statistics discussed at the forum: 59,000 Rhode Islanders are out of work; 21,000 receive government benefits such as unemployment compensation; and annually, there are about 11,000 job openings in the state, five times less than the number needed.

Regarding state government, Giovanni Feroce, CEO of Alex and Ani, drew applause when he said he prefers government to stay out of his way. Karl Wadensten, president of VIBCO Vibrators, spoke of the “buckets of bureaucracy” he’s waded through for his manufacturing business in Wyoming, R.I. “One road block after another” soon discourages new entrepreneurs, he said.

Mike Ritz, executive director of Leadership Rhode Island, takes a question from a member of the audience during the forum.

House Speaker Gordon D. Fox ’85, HD ‘10, defended state government -- including regulations, the bane of many a business -- as indispensable to safe and orderly growth. Government’s job, Fox said, is to “set the bases on which jobs can be created” and, he stressed, “commerce is always at the forefront.”

Regarding the role of universities, Mim Runey, president of Johnson and Wales University, Providence campus, and Russell Carey, executive vice president of planning and policy at Brown University, each pointed out the many ways their schools already contribute to the local economy in the form, for instance, of the number of people they employ and the millions spent in the community. 

Feroce took a different tack, calling on colleges to better teach students how to work. “I would like to see work experience be a major part of college,” he said. “Students need to find out what it is like to be at work.” His company, Alex and Ani, has pledged $1 million to RIC for art center renovations.

The next “Publick Occurrences” session on the skills gap in Rhode Island is Wednesday, Oct. 10, 6-8 p.m. at Sapinsley Hall on the RIC campus.

Other panelists taking part in Thursday’s forum were: Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation; Constance A. Howes, president and CEO of Women & Infants Hospital; Allan Tear, managing partner of Betaspring, a business incubator; and Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart R.I.