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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Economic forum draws a packed house in Charlestown

Shockingly low number of loans issued to Charlestown small businesses
Rep. Donna Walsh, lobbying the Governor. DLT Director Charlie
Fogarty (left)
By Will Collette

Wednesday’s “Community Business Outreach Forum,” held at the newly reopened General Stanton Inn, drew a standing-room-only crowd mostly comprised of small business owners in Charlestown to hear Governor Lincoln Chafee as well as federal and state agency officials talk about opportunities Charlestown businesses can tap into to boost the town’s economy.

The event was organized by Economic Improvement Commission Chair Frank Glista[1] with the state Economic Development Corporation. Starting with warm welcoming remarks from Governor Chafee, who singled out Rep. Donna Walsh for her hard work in the legislature to aid small business growth, the session largely featured ways for Charlestown small businesses to get the help they need to thrive.

But the most shocking new information presented at this forum was news that Charlestown businesses only have three US Small Business Administration–approved loans on the books, together totaling only $182,000, and no loans at all from Rhode Island’s Ocean State Business Development Authority.

SBA Director for RI Mark Hayward talks about low-interest
business loans that Charlestown businesses don't get
The Authority chair, Bud Violet, quipped that he told his accounting staff to give him a printout of all the participating Charlestown businesses and, finding none, he said he planned to stick around town until at least one Charlestown business owner decided to take advantage of their great programs.

For example, Bud Violet noted they can give RI businesses fixed-rate 20-year loans at 4.3% and 2.8% 20-year fixed-rate loans for machinery and equipment. The standard down payment is 10%, but there are also funds available from the EDC that can cut the down payment to 5%.

Ocean State Business Development Authority head
Bud Violet was amazed that not one Charlestown
Business has used available business capital from
his agency
He said these loans can be used for almost any kind of practical business purpose except the purchase of investment property. The example he gave was that of buying a strip mall. He said that they finance retail establishments, restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses all the time.

The presenters also described funding available for renewable energy, such as wind turbines (all are forbidden in Charlestown unfortunately even residential and small commercial ones, by act of the CCA Town Council majority on the advice of the CCA-controlled Planning Commission) and solar power. Charlestown Wine & Spirits much-heralded green energy design received such funding.

Programs can be combined to make pending affordable housing projects like ChurchWoods and Shannock Village even better and even more integrated into the fabric of Charlestown life.

It occurred to me that signage problems, like those that were raised at the October 9 Town Council meeting (click here), where three small business owners in town told the Council how they are being choked to death by Charlestown’s draconian antisignage ordinance, could possibly be solved through small business loans. I had the picture in my mind of a great new, tasteful business sign. Such a sign could be bought through business loans that would enable merchants to meet every imaginable CCA/Ruth Platner restriction.

Yes, if you’re sensing an onrushing anti-CCA rant, you’re right. I sat in that meeting hearing about all the amazing opportunities that we are missing, due in large part to the antibusiness environment the CCA has created in this town over the past four years.

DLT Director Charlie Fogarty talks about business opportunities
while Tom Gentz (seated, left) studies his speech
I watched and listened to CCA Town Council boss Tom Gentz struggle to give a coherent reading of his prepared remarks – in every photo of other speakers, there’s Gentz looking down and studying his speech – which he muffed!

I found it mind-blowing that Gentz actually bragged about the expansion of businesses – for example, Ocean House Marina – that Gentz and the CCA have tried to harm or drive out of business. Click here to read Ordinance 350, sponsored by Tom Gentz and aimed directly at hurting Ocean House Marina, and click here to listen to a session of character assassination that Gentz permitted to take place before the Council in support of his punitive ordinance. 

Shame on you, Tom Gentz!

Gentz, as well as CCA Town Council Vice-President Dan Slattery,[2] who sat in the audience, had nothing to contribute to the forum, other than Gentz’s awkward and phony remarks. But they both had lots to say the night before at the Town Council meeting as they both endorsed Planning Commissioner and CCA wannabe Town Councilor George Tremblay’s fictional affordable housing report.

They wanted the Town Council to endorse Tremblay’s report despite its incomplete treatment of the problems of affordable housing (by totally omitting rental property), erroneous analysis, and bias, as well as the lack of any consultation with the town’s Affordable Housing Commission, whose members, and not the Planning Commission, are actually officially charged with addressing the issue. 

Charlestown's failure to meet its legal obligations on affordable housing is a problem on many levels, not the least of which is the economic well-being of the town. Most municipalities pay close attention to the need for "workforce housing" for potential workers as a key part of any economic strategy. 

Plus, construction activity - whether it's retrofitting existing homes to become affordable rentals or building new homes - is an important economic indicator. The most common occupation in Charlestown, according to the US Census, is construction. The CCA's refusal to find sustainable solutions that meet our legal duty is bad for Charlestown's economy.

Gentz and Slattery got their colleagues to agree to send Tremblay’s embarrassingly bad piece of work[3] to every other city and town with the plea that these other cities and towns join with Charlestown in opposing affordable housing.

Governor Chafee thinks Charlestown is a "hotbed of progressivism."
I'm not making this up. 
I could go on about that subject – I have before, and no doubt will again – but suffice to say that our CCA-controlled town government has no sense or concern about the needs of Charlestown other than the very privileged and self-interested constituency they really serve.

But despite the CCA retro attitudes, lots of great ideas and projects came from audience members, such as Steve Maciel from Buckley Heating, who noted a new “Healthy Places by Design” program being implemented locally in cooperation with the RI Health Department. The concept fits nicely into sustainable development such as the ChurchWoods project.

Maciel’s description of the concept was so animated and interesting that it provoked Governor Chafee to quip, “Who knew that Charlestown was a hotbed of Progressivism? Quite a hip place here.” Direct quote, Mikey, not something I made up.

I came away convinced that Charlestown could have a bright future that sacrifices none of its environmental treasures and indeed makes Charlestown an even more pleasant place to live. Except it’s not gonna happen under the CCA’s leadership.

[1] DISCLOSURE: Frank is a friend and colleague of mine on the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee and a CDTC-endorsed candidate for the Planning Commission. This forum was a clear demonstration of the kind of leadership qualities Frank would bring to Planning if elected by you on November 6.

[2] DISCLOSURE: Gentz, Slattery and Tremblay are ALSO on the November ballot. They are not emphasizing their economic development positions, although they are not above taking credit for things they actually opposed. Kinda like Mitt Romney taking credit for saving General Motors. They are also not above simply making stuff up if it advances their political ambitions.

[3] Not sure if they plan to send Tremblay’s hand-written appendices with the report. Not that it would make much difference in the effect this report will have on Charlestown’s credibility.