Publick Occurrences forum at RIC looks at reinventing economy  

The third and final “Publick Occurrences” forum on reinventing the economy elicited a host of ideas for improving the state, including the suggestion that the best way to keep students in Rhode Island is to get them actively engaged in local communities.

“We need to encourage the universities and colleges to get students involved in the communities,” said Umberto Crenca, founder of the AS220 arts center in downtown Providence, speaking during the final session of “Publick Occurrences: Rhode Island’s Economy: How Do We Fix It?”

Umberto Crenca

“Students are more likely to stay,” Crenca said, if involved in the community, and he has seen it happen at AS220 where student workers stayed once they realized the quality of life in Rhode Island can be “unmatched” anywhere else. “We have a lot of amazing things going on, a lot of amazing people settling here,” Crenca said. 

About 250 people attended the forum, held at Sapinsley Hall Monday night on the Rhode Island College campus and sponsored by RIC, Leadership Rhode Island and the Providence Journal. Karen Bordeleau, acting executive editor of the Journal, moderated, with RIC President Nancy L. Carriuolo and Leadership RI Director Mike Ritz welcoming the gathering. 

Crenca, for the arts, was one of 10 experts on three separate panels asked to comment on “how to fix their sector of the economy,” with panelists representing a wide array of sectors such as manufacturing, tourism, health care, education and entrepreneurship. Audience opinion on selected topics was gauged through the use of I-clickers, or remote control devices, provided by the IT (information technology) department at RIC.

David Dooley, president of the University of Rhode Island representing the education sector, agreed with Crenca’s call for students to be actively involved in their communities as way to stem the so-called “brain drain,” the exodus of graduated seniors that state officials have bemoaned for years.

Cheryl Merchant

Out-of-state students would stay in Rhode Island with the right opportunities, Dooley said. Colleges must be “strategic” about “how we educate them and the opportunities we create for them,” he said.

He spoke of the importance of research to URI and RIC because such work brings in revenue in the form of grants, creates jobs and can serve as R&D agents to help local corporations solve problems. “For every $1 of research at URI, $1.70 is made available to the state,” Dooley said.

Last year received $10.3 million in research and academic grants, a $2.3 million increase from the year before, in fields that include biology, nursing, social work, political science, psychology and job-training.

 What Rhode Island’s economy most needs, participants agreed, is a solid business plan for the entire state based on a clear and sustainable vision for the future.

“We need a vision,” said Cheryl Merchant, CEO and president of Hope Global in Cumberland, a manufacturer of industrial textile and fabric products. “And that vision needs to have manufacturing in it.”

Sixcia Devine

Sixcia Devine, founder of Sixcia Business Development Inc., called for a business plan that would take into account the state’s 67,000 Latinos and emphasize such factors as networking, education and positive coaching. The state needs a plan, she said, “with a clear vision, strategy and execution.”

Among those seated in the audience – in the front row, in fact – was House Speaker Gordon Fox ’85, HD’10, who good-naturedly endured frequent ribbing about the state funding panelists would like to see for their own sectors. Fox was a panelist in the first forum earlier this month.

Among other ideas and observations offered at the forum:

  • Crenca wants schools in the state to teach the principles of design to all grades to create “an entire culture of innovators” well-versed in the vocabulary of design. “It’s profound what that could possibly generate,” Crenca said.
  • With more nonprofits per capita than any other state, Rhode Island could convert some agencies to social enterprises and so generate income, said Angela Jackson, founder and executive director of the Global Language Project.
  • Health care professionals need to begin consolidating clinical programs at the hospitals, said Kathleen C. Hittner, a former senior vice president of Lifespan. With two hospitals in receivership and a third seeking a partner, she predicted there will be no small independent hospitals left in Rhode Island within 18 to 24 months.

Other experts who took part in the forum were: James Hall, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society; James Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP; Leslie Taito, director of regulatory and quality management for the state Economic Development Corporation; and Linda Katz, policy director of the Economic Progress Institute (formerly the Poverty Institute).