The type of development that Rhode Island decides to encourage on the reclaimed I-195 land will determine whether this development effort moves our economy forward, or squanders our chance to make a big difference.
The twenty or so buildable acres recovered during the project to re-route I-195 in Providence has the ability to drive major new economic development in our state.
This land represents an opportunity to attract a new anchor business to our state. An anchor business is one that not only brings a large number of employees into the state; it also drives additional economic development that creates many local jobs in related fields and businesses.
The 195 land is waterfront land that makes for an attractive location for an office headquarters. Rhode Island could sweeten the allure of the land by bringing into the mix the remaining loan guarantee dollars controlled by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation that were used to bring the company 38 Studios to Rhode Island.
This combination of prime land and economic incentives would be attractive to a great many national class businesses. The state would be well served if proposals were solicited from these businesses willing to build on this land and locate their employees in the new space. In evaluating the proposals that come in, one of the highest evaluative criteria should be how much and what kind of ancillary economic development would be driven by the proposal.
Imagine a scenario where a company like Google decides to build an office tower on the land and locate one or more divisions of employees in the new building. We would very likely see a lot of new economic development throughout the region as new businesses set up shop to be in close proximity to their customer. Any employees who relocated from out of state would buy homes and help to buoy our flagging real estate market. New payroll and property tax payments would broaden our tax base. Startup businesses created by alumni of the anchor company would set up shop nearby. [I consider my software business a spinoff from GTECH Corporation, one of the few anchor businesses we have in Rhode Island.]
There has been a lot of talk about non-profit and higher education uses for this land. I argue that if the land is developed with a focus on these areas that the level of ancillary economic activity will likely be significantly lower than what would likely happen with my Google example from above. Put another way, we will not get nearly as many jobs out of a ‘meds and eds’ approach as we will from hosting a competitive procurement for this land which takes into account total job creation potential.
A large building housing something like a new nursing school can be placed in a great many areas in and around Providence. A nursing school will not drive a lot of high end ancillary economic development. For this reason, something like a nursing school should not be a preferred occupant for any of the 195 land.
The worst fate for our state would be if the 195 land were allocated to something exclusively retail oriented. It is one thing for the ground floor of an office tower to contain shops and restaurants, quite another if a big chunk of the land goes to some sort of big box retail outlet.
Rhode Island’s economy needs the 195 land to be developed in the wisest of manners. Done well, this land can serve as the engine for an economic resurgence which can help lift the state from its economic malaise. Done poorly, we will have squandered perhaps our best shot at attracting a new anchor business to our state.
It is with great interest that I watch the progress of the 195 Commission. My sincerest hope and expectation is that the professionals on this commission are able to guide this project to the best possible economic outcome for our state.
Let us all hope that the classic Rhode Island mentality of ‘what’s in it for me’ is kept far at bay for this project – too much is riding on it.