Benny’s Is Another Warning Sign for Rhode Island

Like other Rhode Islanders, I’ve got my stories of finding just the right thing at a Benny’s.  As Ted Nesi reports in his weekend column, this is probably a point of commonality across the state:

“Like so many Rhode Islanders, I am heartbroken,” Governor Raimondo said after the announcement Friday – a somewhat remarkable statement about what is, after all, a store; there will still be places to buy Christmas lights or snow shovels after December. But of course it’s not about that. It’s about community, about the institutions and traditions that bind us together, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel closer to people across the country than across the street.

That is why our sense of pre-nostalgia melancholy at the closing of the entire chain should be secondary to a higher degree of concern, even urgency, at the direction in which we’re heading.  This isn’t just a matter of watching institutions crumble under the weight of an evolving future.  The profound lesson has to do with our passivity in the face of change.

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A few years back, when the RI Foundation hosted its Make Rhode Island Great Again summit (or whatever it was called), Mike Stenhouse and I happened to sit at a lunch table with one of the higher ups from Benny’s.  Given that it was an area of central focus for us at the time, Stenhouse raised the topic of eliminating the sales tax, and the Benny’s executive offered a somewhat muttered reply and soon thereafter excused himself from the table.

Now, I’ll never gainsay the possibility that Stenhouse and I are simply frightening to behold, and perhaps the businessman wasn’t in the mood to be pitched for a donation.  My impression, however, drawn mostly from the substance of his muttering, was that he wouldn’t support something so disruptive of the status quo.  Indeed, that was the view expressed in no uncertain terms by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s representative on the legislative commission to study  sales tax elimination.

Of course, one can’t say with certainty that the boom of an eliminated sales tax would have saved Benny’s from the Amazon tidal wave, but my wager would be that it would have.  More importantly, such a reform would have opened up new possibilities for the company.  Being the kind of state that isn’t afraid actively to get out of the way of its residents’ needs could make all the difference.

And it’s a difference we need to start making, otherwise the only Rhode Island institutions that will remain will be government and the outsized benefits of its employees.

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