- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A state-mandated economic development plan years in the making is on hold in Rhode Island after critics called the draft flawed and the House speaker requested more time to review it.

RhodeMap RI lays out a long-term vision for sustainable growth that looks broadly at the relationships between the economy and housing, transit, the environment, digital infrastructure and more.

The expansive blueprint, which runs over 180 pages, says the demographically changing state should play to its strengths, reinvigorate urban centers and foster an “inclusive economy,” among other goals.

The General Assembly in 2013 passed legislation calling for a long-term economic development “vision and policy” by Oct. 31 of this year - part of an overall effort to boost economic development. The RhodeMap process, overseen by the state Division of Planning, consisted of multiple forums and workshops.

The State Planning Council was poised to adopt the plan last month, seven weeks before Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo’s inauguration and the start of the 2015 legislative session. But the meeting was called off at the request of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who wanted more time to review the draft. He said through a spokesman that House members weren’t familiar with the plan.

The delay came after a variety of criticisms were raised, including that the plan was “socialist” because of some of its land use language. Some also suggested that because the plan is federally funded, it would allow the federal government to insert itself into state and local decisions. In a recent letter to Associate Planning Director Kevin Flynn, a bipartisan group of current and incoming lawmakers called the effort misguided and inadequate.

They called the community input a “mirage” and said, “We fear that a great deal of time, energy and money is being poured into an effort that will have minimal impact on the economic success of Rhode Island.”

The work was funded by a $1.9 million Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and more than $100,000 from the Rhode Island Foundation.

Mike Stenhouse, of the nonprofit Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, also wants more public debate on the plan, which he says sets out fuzzy goals. His group worries it represents a “big government takeover of the economy.”

Some question the wisdom of dumping such a document on the doorstep of Raimondo, who detailed her own economic plans during the gubernatorial campaign. The Democrat, who takes office Jan. 6, recently told WPRI-TV that she hadn’t yet reviewed the RhodeMap carefully and that the planning council “should do whatever they want - vote on it or not vote on it.”

Transition spokeswoman Cara Cromwell later noted a lot of time has been spent on it, saying: “The governor-elect’s view is that it provides a great opportunity for all of us to talk about the importance of having an economic development plan moving forward.”

Flynn, along with outgoing Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee, say the RhodeMap is misunderstood. He dismissed the notion that it allows for a “HUD takeover of government” and stressed that it was crafted locally after extensive outreach.

“The notion that because we take HUD money that you lose your property rights and you have a HUD takeover of government, I think is just not true,” he said.

Of the plan’s broad visions, he said: “These are not radical things that no one has ever talked about before.”

The planning council’s next meeting is Dec. 11.


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