Controlling the Crossing: Consumers, Not Government, Should Mediate Competitors

Symbolic of the cronyism for which our state has become infamous, the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce plans to petition the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to deny a license to a ferry boat company that would compete with an existing Narragansett-based operator.

Rhode Island Fast Ferry, a successful business that currently operates routes from Quonset Point to Martha’s Vineyard, is looking to expand its service to include Quonset Point to Block Island.  Currently, Block Island Ferry provides the only year-round service to Block Island, from Point Judith.

The Narragansett Chamber and its executive director, Deb Kelso, in an obvious move to shield one of its members from competition is, in effect, attempting to block another business from legitimately investing in a service that would create new jobs in our state. Kelso called the potential scenario “redistributing the wealth.” What? This limited mindset completely misses the point: That “competition” creates wealth.

Competition, a core principle of capitalism, means that consumers, via the open market, are free to decide for themselves which products and services best meet their needs. These decisions should not be forced on consumers through crony policies or a central planning process. This is how the Ocean State has restricted economic growth over the decades. Any chamber of commerce head should be well aware of this.

Rhode Island Fast Ferry and Block Island Ferry should each be allowed to offer its service routes. And it is likely that each will thrive if it runs a good, clean business. With two successful businesses, more jobs, and more wealth is created.

Chambers of commerce should be pro-business voices that support open competition. They should be in the business of promotion, not sinking to the practice of protectionism. Yet, like far too many other chambers, political entities, and elected officials in our state, insider politics often trump potential economic development and job growth.

It is precisely this anti-free-market attitude that is strangling the Ocean State by making it a leading model among burdensome business and tax environments across the country and continually driving families and entrepreneurs away.

“This is America. Anybody can start up a business if they want to,” said Charles Donadio, founder of RI Fast Ferry. The irony is that Donadio himself is a member of the Narragansett Chamber, yet Kelso has chosen to protect the local insider.

This is not the first time that Kelso and her Chamber have sought to interfere with the free market. In 2012, the Narragansett Chamber joined with three other local chambers to sue the South Kingston Chamber when it merely sought to change its name. In a sharply worded decision of denial, the judge in that case criticized Kelso and others for attempting to block what the court saw as nothing more than competition. The PUC, if it hopes to retain credibility, should likewise tear up Kelso’s misguided petition.

Ms. Kelso’s anti-free-market positions demonstrate that she is hardly fit to lead what should be a pro-business organization. Adding to her problems, sources have indicated to me that Kelso has infuriated her Chamber’s board and upset other local business owners over this matter. When all is said and done, the Narragansett Chamber’s Board should hold a vote to search for a new director.

In fact, Rhode Island voters, the equivalent of our state’s board of directors, should themselves vote to bring on new leadership that will put our own Ocean State’s ship back on course when they have the chance in 2014.

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