Economic development stakeholders came together at the Johnston Senior Center yesterday for a business forum coordinated by the North Central Chamber of Commerce (NCCC). The focus of the Chamber, and of the guest speakers, was making it easier to do business in Rhode Island.
At the local level, the NCCC serves as a clearinghouse of business resources.
“The Chamber’s purpose is to help business, that is why we are here. We deliver the key ingredients for a business to succeed: growth, education, networking opportunities and Chamber advocacy,” said Chamber President Deborah Ramos.
Over the past few years, Ramos has seen many businesses struggle in a recession economy. There has been good news too, however. Ramos explained that the challenging climate has forced government and business advocates to “think out of the box” to overcome obstacles and flourish.
“When businesses prosper, so do the communities,” she said.
In Johnston, Mayor Joseph Polisena said that many businesses have done just that.
“We have developed a tremendous business climate,” he said, adding that economic development is a priority in the town. “Your businesses are the economic engine that power the Rhode Island economy.”
Polisena credited Governor Lincoln Chafee with pushing forward an economic development agenda, and giving cities and towns the tools to grow business in their backyard.
“We’re very fortunate to have a governor who was a mayor as well as a U.S. Senator. He really gets it; he knows how important small businesses are,” Polisena said.
Chafee linked business support to looking out for taxpayers. As a former councilman, mayor and U.S. Senator, he said that growing the economy stabilizes the tax base, which goes back to protecting the property taxpayer.
Jeffrey Saletin, a developer with plans for the former Stuart’s Plaza on Hartford Avenue, attended the forum and said that the state should take a cue from the town he is currently doing business with.
“In Johnston, I have never experienced a better welcoming approach to development,” he said.
He estimates his project, which would include commercial space and potentially a hotel in the long-term, would result in 400 construction jobs and another 500 to 700 part- and full-time jobs from the businesses housed in the plaza. Saletin says he is eager to get the project off the ground, but he should feel that same excitement from the state agencies he works with.
“From the moment you walk in, it’s good to get the sense that we’re going to get to the goal line,” he said.
North Providence has likewise worked to make starting a business less complicated. In that town, all types of inspections are funneled through one office. In addition to streamlining departments, North Providence actively recruits businesses to move into the town and guarantees return phone calls within a few days, at most.
“We’ve identified all of our properties that are available. We are on the phone talking to different businesses, trying to encourage them to come to North Providence,” said Mayor Charles Lombardi, himself a business owner who works from 5:30 to 8 a.m. before heading to Town Hall. “Our people are instructed, when you get a call from a business and they need you, you need to get out there.”
Leslie Taito, the director of regulatory and quality management for the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC), has been with the state for nearly seven months, and her focus has been streamlining the process for starting or expanding a business.
“We want to get to a clear, predictable and reliable system in Rhode Island. We want to make a system so that you, as small business people, can navigate that system on your own,” she said.
Taito called the work being done in her department as “a game changer.” She asked for feedback from business owners as they attempt to create regulations that are “good and sound” for the business community, and as they develop a timeline and stick to it.
“We want, when you go to a department and you put in an application, if they tell you it takes 30 days, we want it to stay within that 30-day time period,” she said.
RIEDC is tracking that information and plans to use it for further changes so that business owners can better plan. Taito lauded the benefits of having a small business ombudsman to help businesses navigate the process.
“We are in a prime position to really make dramatic change that is meaningful to the business community,” she said.
The forum also highlighted resources that are available to small business owners and those who want to start a company.
Director of the Department of Labor and Training Charles Fogarty acknowledged that the state is facing a challenging environment with high unemployment, but said that DLT is focusing on improving customer service, eliminating unnecessary fees and regulations and better coordinating workforce training.
“The most important asset we have are the people of our state and we want to have a skilled and flexible workforce,” Fogarty said.
Businesses can access DLT’s Business Workforce Center, for example, for recruitment efforts. Their online database has 48,000 users, and soon, all Rhode Islanders receiving unemployment will be required to put their resume onto the database. DLT sponsors job fairs and publicizes these opportunities, and can narrow down the applicant pool as well, through a “prove it” program that eliminates applicants who are unqualified for a certain position.
“You’re actually only looking at the candidates that fit your criteria,” he said.
DLT offers on-the-job training grants, oversees tax credits and has online training for employees and employers. Fogarty urged business owners to call the department and find out what programs could work for them.
“Even though we offer these services, most people aren’t aware of them,” he said.
Other resources highlighted included access to capital through RIEDC, and Financial Services Client Relations Manager Chris Cannata; support for renewable energy products from Julian Dash, the RIEDC’s director of the Renewable Energy Fund; and business supports available from the Ocean State Business Development Authority, a private entity overseen by the federal government and under the leadership of President Henry “Bud” Violet. Doug Jobling, regional director of the Small Business Development Center, also spoke briefly about strategic planning, financing and marketing consulting that businesses can access through the center, run out of Johnson & Wales University.
“We can help businesses in all industries in all sizes. Our role is to get right into your business with you. We’re not here to just provide a service and go away,” Jobling said.
Guests were given contact information for all of these departments, and were urged to call and ask questions to make sure they’re receiving all of the support and assistance available to them. When in doubt, Ramos said, call the chamber.
“We’re truly committed to helping Chamber businesses grow their businesses,” she said. “This is the year to join the Chamber.”
To contact the North Central Chamber, call 349-4674. The Department of Labor and Training can be reached at 462-8870, and RIEDC at 278-9100.