Wexford: A Half-Empty Glass of Promises

Before discussing a Providence Journal editorial about the empty space at the government-backed Wexford Innovation Complex in Providence with John DePetro, I reread an article that Patrick Anderson slipped into the paper at the tail end of November.  This part jumped out at me:

Since opening this past summer, the [Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC)] has attracted more than 40 businesses, with a combined 150 people working there on a given day, according to Joy Fox, a spokesperson for CIC.

CIC customers include five wind energy businesses, law offices, the Boston Globe and Zumper, a San Francisco online real estate company that purchased a Rhode Island software startup and moved them into CIC.

Note the Boston Globe as a CIC customer.  That brings to mind another late-November article in the Providence Journal, this one by Katherine Gregg:

An arm of the Raimondo administration[, the Commerce Corp.,] has in recent weeks been the sole advertiser in a Monday-through-Friday newsletter at the center of The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island expansion drive.

You’ll recall that RI Commerce, headed by Governor Gina Raimondo’s commerce secretary, Stefan Pryor, has been integral in developing her economic development plan, initially with the help of the Brookings Institution, and shuffling around the subsidies to make it happen.  In December 2016, I proposed that a Brookings-Wexford-CIC relationship made the development seem a bit like a branch or franchise of a package, rather than a one-of-a-kind innovation for the Ocean State.

This is not to say there was undo influence with the Globe.  The Wexford building is new and centrally located and hip and topical and… empty.  With the availability of conference and event spaces, one could see its being an attractive rental office for a ramping-up news organization without any nudge needed.

Still, it’s at least an indication of the damaging optics that government can bring when it gets involved in economic development and subsidization.  Other tenants working in the Wexford building whom Anderson mentions create that general impression:

  • Wind energy businesses, which tap into heavy government subsidies as an industry
  • A state-backed business incubator with involvement of the state’s university
  • Brown University
  • Johnson & Johnson, which has been subsidized in the space and still hasn’t bothered to move in

Even look at the spokesperson with whom Anderson spoke:  Joy Fox.  She came into public view as Gina Raimondo’s PR person back when the governor was just the treasurer.  Now a free agent, she has been engaged as a PR consultant, CIC confirms.  When an “innovation center” has repeated ties back to the state executive, one has to wonder where the subsidization and special deals end and the actual economic activity begins.

These are questions Rhode Islanders should ask themselves, especially as the state government ramps up to promote a heavily subsidized soccer stadium and expansive development in Pawtucket.  We can bet that the stadium and public infrastructure pieces won’t be the only ones taxpayers will be forced to subsidized, and it’s a matter of some doubt whether anybody who doesn’t have connections to state government will overlook the state’s terrible business climate and move in.

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