On Tuesday, March 2, Rhode Island will hold a special election that could potentially green-light $400 million in state bonding – borrowed money that is to be paid back over a period of time, with interest, similar to a mortgage.
The ballot is split into seven questions, each dedicated to providing financial assistance to various sectors that advocates say are crucial to bolstering the state’s economy and supporting its emergence and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The early in-person voting period started last week and runs through March 1 at city and town halls. Mail voting is also available to those who got their ballot applications in prior to the Feb. 9 deadline.
Of course, the traditional in-person Election Day option remains available to voters on March 2. For more information, visit the state’s online Voter Information Center at www.vote.sos.ri.gov.
So, what is on the ballot? Why should you care? Let’s break down each question and the pertinent facts.
Question 1 would provide $57.3 million to the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center, $38 million to fund renovations at Rhode Island College’s Clarke Science Building and $12 million to fund renovations and modernization efforts at the Community College of Rhode Island’s (CCRI) Knight and Flanagan campuses in Warwick and Lincoln, as well as its Liston campus in Providence.
“The higher education bond on the March 2 ballot is an opportunity for Rhode Island voters to support their public university and colleges and provide students with an education and experience that will serve them well in their careers and lives,” URI President David M. Dooley said in a joint press release issued by URI, RIC and CCRI. “Rehabilitating and modernizing our facilities is critical to staying competitive, and to being a vital partner in helping to revitalize and strengthen the Rhode Island economy.”
The URI portion of the bond, in addition to funding renovations of the 53-year-old Fine Arts Center that supports 5,000 students and sees 50,000 visitors annually, would enable the construction of an 82,000-square-foot academic building to provide updated classroom and laboratory space. The project would begin in the summer of 2022 and create an estimated 647 construction-related jobs, according to the release.
The RIC portion of the bond, the university posits, would enable the state to continue to offer a competitive academic environment in STEM – modernizing the Clarke Science Building for the first time since it was constructed in 1962. This would open up space for new research labs to support its scientific curriculum, which includes physics, chemistry, nuclear medicine, geology, astronomy and oceanography. They argue it would also support related curriculums such as environmental studies, medical imaging and their touted nursing and health education programs. Renovations would be completed by 2024.
“Upgrading Clarke Science would dramatically improve our ability to offer top-notch academic programs and experiential learning opportunities for future generations of Rhode Islanders who hope to pursue careers in science,” RIC President Frank D. Sánchez said in a statement. “This will be responsive to the growing demands for science and technology degrees in Rhode Island, providing benefits to the entire state for decades to come.”
According to CCRI public information officer Amy Kempe, the $12 million earmarked for CCRI would enable the college to construct a “one-stop shop” to help students easily receive support services such as advising, veterans’ affairs, financial aid and career services. It would provide for an additional elevator at the Warwick campus to increase accessibility and enable classroom and technological upgrades – including facilities that “have seen little change in more than 50 years,” per the release. These improvements would occur in 2021 if approved.
“As the only community college in the state, CCRI serves more than 44,000 Rhode Islanders annually, with most of our students remaining in the state after graduation, joining the workforce and continuing their education,” CCRI President Meghan Hughes said in a statement.
According to Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy for Save The Bay, Question 2 would mark the largest investment in environmental protection and outdoor recreational facilities in more than 30 years in Rhode Island. The question originated as a $43 million package, but steadily grew throughout discussions in the general assembly.
The list of initiatives supported by this money, if approved, is long. The two largest chunks include a $33 million pot for capital improvements to state beaches, parks and campgrounds and a $15 million pot to improve the quality of the state’s drinking water – which will make the state eligible to receive up to $75 million in additional federal funding for infrastructure improvements related to drinking water and wastewater facility upgrades.
A $7 million portion of the bond would go to a 75 percent matching grant program for communities to make improvements related to climate resiliency.
For example, Warwick could potentially apply for matching funds to protect neighborhoods against flooding or identify and address other areas of concern.
Other pieces of the initiative include $10 million for developmental infrastructure projects along the reclaimed I-195 land in Providence near the new Pedestrian Bridge, and dredging of the Providence River; $4 million for an 80 percent matching grant program for communities to rehabilitate outdoor parks, playgrounds and athletic fields; $3 million to protect forested land and farmland throughout the state; and $2 million for the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council to fund public recreational projects from North Smithfield and Glocester through Smithfield, North Providence, Providence and Johnston.
All projects included in this scope are anticipated to be completed within five years of approval.
“To protect and enhance what is valuable to you, you need to maintain your assets. If you don’t, they will degrade and the cost of fixing problems become much greater,” Hamblett said. “In our view, Narragansett Bay and the rivers and coasts that feed the Bay are Rhode Island’s greatest assets.”
Hamblett further argued that maintaining access to high-quality outdoor recreation and ensuring a healthy Narragansett Bay is “the foundation of economy.” A study commissioned by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation from Tourism Economics likewise concluded that recreation and its accompanying industries accounted for more than $1.1 billion of the $4.7 billion spent by visitors to the state in 2019.
“Rhode Islanders are famous for loving Narragansett Bay and always stepping up to make investments in supporting the bay,” Hamblett said. “Now is not the time to stop investing in that recovery.”
According to Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI – a research and policy organization operating out of Roger Williams University’s Providence campus – no initiative is as integral to stabilizing the state’s economy, improving its public health outcomes and uplifting its educational achievements as ensuring there is enough affordable housing stock to serve the populace.
According to Clement, more than one-third of Rhode Island households (about 146,000) are cost-burdened, meaning they are forced to spend more than a third of their income on housing costs. Despite this, only one out of every four Rhode Islanders who qualify for affordable housing in Rhode Island can actually access it due to lack of available capacity.
“We just simply have not been producing enough housing units,” she said, adding that Rhode Island sits firmly in last place among its New England peers in affordable housing per capita. According to HousingWorksRI data, Rhode Island spent only about $22 per capita towards housing in 2018, compared to $101 in Massachusetts, $96 in Connecticut, $78 in Vermont and $26 in Maine.
Clement said that despite all communities in Rhode Island being legally obligated by the Low to Moderate Housing Act to achieve 10 percent of all housing as “affordable” – meaning priced at or below 80 percent of the median income – only six out of 39 Rhode Island communities have actually achieved the metric.
Question 3 would provide funding for a $65 million grant program run through the Rhode Island Office of Housing and Community Development to help communities construct more affordable housing and get closer to that goal. If approved, projects could commence in 2021 and conclude in 2026.
For Clement, the impetus to approve Question 3 resides in having empathy for fellow Rhode Islanders.
“In Rhode Island, pretty much everybody knows somebody who needs housing or more stable housing,” she said. “This is about helping our neighbors and friends and families and the people who bag our groceries at the supermarket or take care of our children or grandparents every day. I want these people to have a safe and decent place to lay their head at night. I think we, as a community, should care about that.”
According to Charles St. Martin, public information officer for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, approval of Question 4 is “critical to the agency’s ability to rebuild Rhode Island’s roads and bridges while employing hundreds of construction workers.” The money would be utilized throughout 2021 and 2022.
St. Martin said that approval of the bond funding would unlock an additional $286.8 million in federal funding (a four-to-one match) – amounting to a $358.5 million total investment into Rhode Island transportation infrastructure repairs. He listed Route 37, the Pell Bridge Ramps Phase 2, the Providence Northbound Viaduct, Washington Bridge, Henderson Bridge, Huntington Viaduct Bridges, the Route 146 Safety Improvement Project, the Cranston Canyon Corridor Project, the Pawtucket/Central Falls Train Station, and unspecified, additional “bike and pedestrian projects” as examples of projects that could be funded by this money.
St. Martin said that through DOT’s RhodeWorks program, the department has already invested $2.6 billion into the state economy through the completion of 171 projects and the repair or replacement of 167 bridges. Passing the bond would help continue that work, while failure to pass the bond would result in “delays or scope changes” to all the aforementioned projects.
According to Courtney Hawkins, director of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, Question 5 marks the first time in Rhode Island’s history that voters could potentially approve bond funding specifically to increase the amount of early learning facilities in the state.
“Early learning is a challenge nationally,” Hawkins said. “While Rhode Island is doing better in some measures, the system is still struggling as a whole.” She said that, specifically, infant and toddler care is a particular sore spot, with many places in the state having no capacity for infants and toddlers whatsoever.
Question 5 would fund a grant program overseen by DHS to help early childhood learning facilities expand their existing services or open up entirely new programs throughout the state. While Hawkins praised the efforts of outgoing Gov. Gina Raimondo to increase the quality of early learning programs in the state, she said the impetus now must be on expanding the number of programs available to utilize those programs.
“Now we need capacity,” she said. “ don’t have the resources to expand, and we’re hopeful that this fund could lay the groundwork. If you have a high-quality program in one part of the state, maybe they could think about expanding.”
Hawkins said that investing in early childhood learning has never been more important than right now, since young children have been directly and adversely affected by the challenges posed by COVID-19. Parents, too, will need to rely more on preschools and daycare facilities to care for their children as jobs return and they go back to work in the coming months.
“In my mind this is the perfect time for us to make this kind of investment and recognize that childcare is integral to our state’s economy, and that if we don’t make these kinds of investments, our economy will not be successful,” she said.
“The pandemic has shown that so many of the workers who are using childcare are truly essential workers. This is a moment for us to remember that and make some investments not only in things like facilities and program quality but also, frankly, workers’ wages and opportunities for workers who go in there every day to care for kids.”
Not since 2014 has the state featured a bond specifically targeting historic preservation and support of Rhode Island’s thriving cultural centers. According to Tom Parrish, executive director for Trinity Repertory Company and spokesman for a more than 20-member coalition in support of Question 6, $7 million is a fraction of the money necessary to bolster one of the state’s economic pillars.
“We discovered there was about $70 million in capital need among the sector in the state,” Parrish said.
Parrish said that the 2014 bond, upon which Question 6 is based, funded nearly 70 construction and renovation projects, employed people from over 350 companies in 38 communities throughout the state, benefited 1.7 million visitors, 400,000 children and 20,000 artists and ultimately amounted to approximately $90 million in additional investments from the community at large for arts and historic preservation endeavors.
Question 6 would put aside $6 million to continue that effort, funding a one-to-one grant program administered by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Of that money, $2.5 million is earmarked for Trinity Rep to renovate and expand its Lederer Theater, which Parrish said would make it “more flexible” and able to host a greater number of events. Additionally, it would enable Trinity Rep to expand its educational programming – which currently accounts for 40 percent of the company’s budget and supports 124 schools in 36 Rhode Island cities and towns.
An additional $1.5 million would go to the Rhode Island Philharmonic to bolster its Carter Center of Music Education and Performance in East Providence, and $2 million more will be available to artistic programs throughout the state to apply for. An additional $1 million would go into a grant program administered by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission to “preserve, renovate and improve public and nonprofit historic sites, museums, and cultural art centers located in historic structures.”
For Parrish, the importance of supporting the arts community in Rhode Island cannot be overstated.
“We’re one of the economic drivers in the state, not just from a tourism and hospitality standpoint but also in quality of life as well,” he said.
“Art helps attract people and businesses to be in our state, and supports hundreds of good-paying, steady jobs for Rhode Islanders. Coming out of COVID especially, these venues and this infrastructure supports restaurants and parking garages and hotels and all sorts of supporting services that make for a very vibrant community.”
Question 7 may seem less straightforward than the other questions on the ballot. But the concept is relatively simple once broken down with the help of Steve King, managing director of the Quonset Development Corporation, the quasi-state agency that would administer the bond funds if approved.
The Quonset Business Park constitutes a 3,200-acre, multi-use piece of land that employs over 12,200 people across 200 different companies. Of that large footprint, there is less than 200 acres yet to be developed.
According to King, “one of the biggest issues for site expansion is having a pathway to getting approval and getting approval for projects to be built.”
Approval of Question 7 would provide $40 million in funding to replicate what the Quonset Development Corporation describes as its “site readiness” initiative throughout Rhode Island. This initiative prioritizes completion of preliminary “groundwork” to ensure that parcels within the park that could potentially become the site of lucrative development projects have already gone through the extensive screening processes – things like environmental impact studies that take large amounts of time and money to conduct – prior to a development opportunity coming along.
According to King, this kind of preliminary effort can be the difference between a large company choosing a site in Quonset or going elsewhere to save time and money. He estimated that “several dozen” projects could be funded throughout the state by emulating this model, and that grants would be chosen through a review process conducted by the board of the Quonset Development Corporation.
The majority of the remaining $20 million from the bond would go toward rehabbing the 80-year-old Pier 1 at Quonset. King said this money would be used in part to match an $11.2 million federal government grant and be used to help bolster the auto importing industry that currently thrives at Quonset, which King said was one of the top 10 such industries in the country and supports 1,700 Rhode Island jobs.
King stressed that keeping Quonset’s pier infrastructure modern and capable of handling increased capacity would be crucial in coming years, as the offshore wind industry is gaining popularity and the waters off Rhode Island hold potentially enormous potential for the industry to grow.
“This is about jobs for Rhode Islanders and to have family-supporting wages and for Rhode Island to be successful,” King said.