Some question if RhodeMap is smartest way to grow state
Is it a resource on which to build a stronger state, or a step toward taking away individual rights?
Those were the principal issues that swirled around the RhodeMap RI economic development plan unanimously approved by the State Planning Council Thursday morning before a packed meeting room.
And the lines were clearly drawn, with a contingent primarily led by Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, calling the plan the council’s “38 Studios moment,” and a group rallied by Scott Wolf and SmartGrowth RI supporting the plan and stressing the need to play upon Rhode Island’s strengths.
But while the RhodeMap made for compelling rhetoric on both sides, the jury is out on how its passage will impact individuals, municipalities and the state. Only hours after the vote, state Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) said he would introduce legislation that would exempt the three communities he represents from any of the provisions of the RhodeMap. Resolutions opposing the plan were approved by the town councils of Coventry and West Greenwich. The East Greenwich Town Council thought there should be additional time to study the plan.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello issued a statement that read, “RhodeMap RI has diverted attention away from the goal of improving our state’s economy. It has no binding effect in law. I prefer to focus my attention on making sure that Rhode Island develops a stronger, better and more vibrant economy that creates new jobs.”
Mattiello went on to say the plan “goes far beyond the scope of economic development strategy. I will continue to work with my members, the Senate President and the Governor-elect to more specifically develop policies, strategies and legislation that improve our economy and promote jobs.”
Some of those closest to developing the plan, however, don’t view it as either a 38 Studios moment or a rigid blueprint.
“This plan does not change any laws or create any programs or offices, establish sources of funds or budgets. The plan is a guide – a tool kit of options – and a framework for approaching many of the difficult decisions Rhode Island still has before it,” Kevin Flynn, state associate director of planning, said in summary remarks prior to the planning council’s vote.
In an interview Friday, Flynn called the plan the “complete opposite” of 38 Studios, which sought to capitalize on one sector of the marketplace whereas RhodeMap looks at multiple sectors of the economy.
Flynn said this is the first update of the state’s guiding plan since 2001. Its development included numerous hearings and an extensive outreach effort, although many testifying in opposition Thursday claimed the plan had been sprung on the state. It was funded by a $1.9 million Housing and Urban Development grant.
HUD’s role in the process was deemed suspect by several speakers.
“I thought this would be an economic plan. I never suspected social engineering was a part of this plan,” said Roy Dempsey of Warwick.
Speakers were given two minutes each to express their opinions, and after an hour, planning council chair Steven Hartford shut off public debate and opened it to council discussion.
Ian Bowles, who came to this country from Great Britain, wore a red, white and blue bow tie. He said he is honored to be called an American, and urged the council, “please don’t go down this path and ruin this dream.”
State Sen.-elect Mark Gee (R-Dist. 35, East Greenwich) opened his remarks in Russian, making the point that even the communists might find the plan too socialistic. State Sen.-elect Elaine Morgan (R-Dist. 34) expressed confusion, adding that the state needs an economic plan and “everything has been done under the radar.”
In his summation, Flynn sought to answer concerns. He said the plan doesn’t diminish personal property rights and “has absolutely no authority to do so.” He also said the plan does not strip local governments of authority, and its adoption would not allow HUD to make demands of the state and municipalities against their will.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee was the first of many to urge approval of the plan. Citing the decline in the unemployment rate in the last four years, he said “we’re on the road to recovery.”
Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, spoke of the foundation’s “Make it Happen RI” effort of two years ago to kick start the state’s economy. He said the RhodeMap includes many of the ideas generated then.
“The plan reflects the interconnectedness of economic development, workforce development and education,” he said. “It acknowledges the complex connections between the economy and environmental resilience. It recognizes that small businesses are the lifeblood of the Rhode Island economy and need support and strengthening.”
John Chambers, a senior vice president of Fuss & O’Neill, said Rhode Island “has a great sense of place,” and that it “makes sense to invest in our diversity and what makes us unique.”
But Peter Hewett of Bristol said, “I see very little to do with economic development in this plan.” He said he found it “abhorrent” that the plan should be approved without passage by the General Assembly.
It was an issue raised by others. State Rep. Doreen Costa (R-Dist. 31) said constituents were calling her with their concerns over the plan, although she represents them and does not have a vote on the plan.
“The more I look at this, I don’t see the economic development in this, it still reeks of socialism,” said state Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, (R-Dist 30).
Planning council member Scott Wolf called the RhodeMap a “sound, pragmatic plan” and a “forward-looking document.”
Planning council member Jan Reistma accused those opposed to the plan of stirring up hatred, distrust and vicious attacks.
“To suggest we’re nailing down things without choice is simply inaccurate,” he said.
Janet Coit, director of the Department of Environmental Management and a member of the planning council, said the plan includes elements such as fishing and tourism that had not been a part of the prior plan.
Coit pointed out that implementing elements of the plan would require further debate and action.
“It will be in the court of the General Assembly to carry forward,” she said.
In the wake of the council’s passage, Stenhouse said the people of Rhode Island have spoken and elected officials have listened. He said he is encouraged by Mattiello’s remarks.
In an email issued by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, he writes, “As part of the state’s economic development planning documents, RhodeMap opens the door for eminent domain. The socially engineered communities can be implemented by local zoning ordinances. Executive orders could be used by any governor of Rhode Island in the future who supports the ideas of the plan. RhodeMap may sit on a shelf, but its ideas can live on and could put your property rights in jeopardy.”
In an email yesterday, Wolf wrote to followers, “Now our challenge for 2015 – and it’s a big and important one – is to ensure that the key policies and smart growth investments contained in the recently passed bonds and economic development plan get implemented. That’s why we need your continued help now more than ever.”