The Expanding Nature of Government “Investments”

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Here’s the latest word on the major public works program related to the land in Providence formerly occupied by Route 195:

It’s the kind of project the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and state economic leaders have long said they hope to foster on nearly 20 acres of prime real estate. In the spring, [Lawyer Timothy H.] Ehrlich’s team submitted a bid to the commission to create [a biotechnology] incubator.

But after working all summer, Ehrlich is convinced the project needs financial help from the state, and that the help must be more than the life-sciences tax credits outlined in the state law that created the commission.

No doubt a variety of people would jump at the chance to tell me I just don’t understand how these things work.  Government must invest in economic development.  Biotech is a growth sector, and an incubator will attract all those “well-paying jobs” that we hear about.  Every other state is subsidizing this industry.  And yet, somehow Rhode Island will become a hub, even though small and late to the game.  Yadda yadda yadda.

Indeed, the article has Marcel Valois, the executive director of the Commerce Corporation (which was formerly the Economic Development Corporation that invested in 38 Studios), insisting that “the project would ‘absolutely’ help the economy.”

Still, I just can’t get past the plain-language description of this whole process.  The government invested in a project to move a highway because it would free up all sorts of “prime real estate” that could be sold to raise money and make economically productive use of the land.  Now we’re “investing” in the process of luring organizations to the property.  Next, those organizations will need massive subsidies to get off the ground.  And then the start-up companies that this particular project attracts as clients will need additional subsidies to afford its services.

I ain’t a biotech-investment guru by a long shot, but this has all of the common-sense markers of a bad way to go about economic development and all of the common-sense markers of a scheme for empowering government agents and enriching connected individuals.

Timothy H. Ehrlich is, according to Kate Bramson’s Providence Journal article, “very encouraged by gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo’s knowledge and background as a venture-capital investor.”  He’s so encouraged, it appears that he’s given Raimondo’s campaign $1,500 since May 2013, although the campaign refunded $250 of that two weeks ago.

The name on the campaign reports is “Tim Ehrlich,” but the address given belongs to this $1.4 million property in Concord, Massachusetts, which is owned by “Timothy H. Ehrlich,” matching the article.  The article also calls Ehrlich a “lawyer,” and the campaign finance reports list the donor as employed by Boston law firm Gunderson Dettmer, where partner Timothy H. Ehrlich “focuses on the representation of start-up, emerging growth and public companies in the information technology, biotech and medical device industries.”



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