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Monday, September 5, 2022

The case for Diossa

“Economic development” or economic development?

By Tom Sgouros in UpRiseRI

Through years of watching changes in Rhode Island economic development personnel, I’ve noticed that a successful career in the field is not necessarily related to a successful economy. I was reminded of this recently when I heard Stefan Pryor, candidate for General Treasurer, express pride that Rhode Island came back from the COVID slump second-most quickly among all states.

People who follow the local economy recognize that as a statistic that is likely true, but doesn’t mean at all what Pryor wants you to think. It was a weak economy that COVID upended, and if you can’t fall far, you won’t have far to climb back: this is the same reason toddlers don’t bruise while learning to walk. A look at the detailed data bears this out; right after us in that list are Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia, none exactly economic powerhouses. Should we be proud to be a competitor of West Virginia?

This is how you succeed (personally) as an economic development professional: by learning to make a sow’s ear sound like a silk purse. 

In truth, the economic development industrial complex rests on a mirage everyone agrees to see: that lasting prosperity can be created by directly affecting the location and investment decisions of rich people and large corporations. Time and again we see the fleeting nature of these deals, where a corporation extorts a government by moving somewhere or promising to hire people. But when the tax breaks expire, usually the benefit does, too. This kind of “economic development” often seems little more than a game by which rich people and corporations suck money from the public treasury.

As neighbors of Massachusetts, we are accustomed to saying its economic success is due to all those universities and research, but think what that says: patient investment in higher education led to prosperity. Over recent decades, Massachusetts also made similarly long-term investments in elementary and secondary education and public transportation. With patience, they built a middle class proportionally much larger and more prosperous than Rhode Island’s. Boston booms, while Providence… doesn’t. This was not the result of “economic development” but it certainly was economic development.

So sure, you can criticize Stefan Pryor’s multi-state record: as Deputy Mayor of Newark, he oversaw an economic development agency so troubled its auditors recommended it simply stop making loans; as Connecticut Education Commissioner he was so controversial he resigned rather than threaten his governor’s reelection; and as director of CommerceRI, Rebuild RI tax credits were managed so they cannot possibly meet the original goals, according to a study by Pryor’s colleagues at the Department of Revenue. But the real danger here is a fundamental misunderstanding of economic development. Rhode Island doesn’t need more “economic development” that are just bad tax deals, we need fundamental reform of how our government thinks about our economy. We need real investments in education, in public transit, in housing, in making the lives of Rhode Islanders better. And we need the patience to see that work make good.

The job of state Commerce Secretary is mostly about being nice to businesses that want to grow here. But by Stefan Pryor’s telling, he’s in charge of the Rhode Island economy. My advice is if you think that our state’s economy is fine — if you think he built the conditions for long-term growth — vote for him. Otherwise consider James Diossa, who is familiar with struggle and has managed a city with near-zero resources to great effect. Diossa understands that government exists to help people who need help, and to make those long-term investments that will pay off — in a permanent way. That’s why I’ll vote for Diossa.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As on many other things, I agree with Tom in his comparison of James Diossa to Stephan Pryor. I too support Diossa whole-heartedly. He took Central Falls from the deepest hole possible and helped to make it a liveable city again. CF was such a write-off that the state tried to pay Pawtucket to absorb the city - and Pawtucket refused. Diossa involved the community and built a great team to bring the city back from beyond the fringe. And he modestly credits others rather than take the credit he deserves.

Stefan Pryor, on the other hand, takes almost sole credit for everything he even comes near. Sure, he was involved in some high profile efforts, such as the rebuilding of lower Manhattan. But that's not so hard when you are running a project with limitless cash and national priority. Pryor's campaign is now throwing rocks at James for "not being ready" for the job of General Treasurer because he "only" saved Central Falls, while Pryor is clearly an ubermenchen. 

No thanks, Stefan. I'm voting for James.     - Will Collette