- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island should boost investment in tourism and marine-based industries, help startups more easily access capital, develop a “talent pipeline” of highly skilled workers and increase export assistance, a joint report by the state’s largest foundation and its job-creation agency said.

The recommendations, released Thursday by the Rhode Island Foundation and the Rhode Island Commerce Corp., stem from a series of work groups attended by more than 200 members of the business community during the past three months.

They are designed to inform a statewide planning effort known as the RhodeMap RI and development of a broader state economic development plan that is due this fall.

“There is no one action step, person or organization that can fix Rhode Island’s economy; progress will require broad participation and leadership from every sector,” Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg and Commerce Corp. Executive Director Marcel Valois said in the executive summary. “Collaboration doesn’t always come naturally, but Rhode Island doesn’t have time for unnecessary duplications or wasted opportunities.”

Rhode Island’s jobless rate - 9.1 percent in December - has been among the highest in the U.S. for years. The state has gained back only about 39 percent of the nearly 40,000 jobs it lost during the recession.

The 121-page report suggests several broad areas of focus, including investing more in areas where it says Rhode Island already has a competitive advantage, including tourism, marine-based industries, and neuroscience and the medical technology sector. It suggests promoting so-called emerging opportunities and developing a stable of workers whose skills match the needs of employers.

That includes in the hard-hit manufacturing sector, which is trying to rebuild. One idea is to explore the feasibility of a new manufacturing-focused technical high school.

The report offers dozens of additional recommendations. Among them:

- Address the state’s lack of available funding to directly support startups, including through loans and equity investments. The report suggests creating a state financing mechanism or fund that would also pull in private-sector money.

- Reverse a decline in visitor spending by boosting the tourism sector. The report recommends creating a consistent funding stream for tourism marketing at the Commerce Corp. and development of a state brand and narrative “based on the DNA of Rhode Island.”

- Promote collaboration in the state’s food-related sector, from production to manufacturing and distribution to sales. The report says 1 percent of Rhode Islanders’ consumption is currently from local sources.

- Identify opportunities for export growth to help existing companies develop new markets. Rhode Island is among the lowest funded states relative to export support, according to the report.

- Claim Rhode Island as the center of the “maker,” or grassroots innovation, movement. The report recommends the launch of a Maker’s Guild and increased collaboration between those who create new products and manufacturers.

The report contains some suggestions that have been made before, and in some cases cites initiatives already underway. It does not specifically identify funding sources. Steinberg noted that the recommendations are designed to inform policy makers who are charged with setting funding priorities.

But, he said: “The call to action that we’re going to give is: The private sector’s got to step up. It’s got to be that combination of public-private.”

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