Nesi’s Notes: July 13

Ted Nesi

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Governor Raimondo returned Friday evening after a whirlwind trip to Idaho for Allen & Co.’s annual Sun Valley Conference. “It’s a lot packed into a few days,” she said in a phone interview while traveling home. “You start with a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, then go until 10 or 11 at night. I try to meet as many people as possible in a short amount of time.” The gathering of tech and media moguls was a target-rich environment for the governor to pitch Rhode Island while hearing what’s top of mind for CEOs making expansion decisions. “In general, fast-growing companies — they’re just obsessed with talent,” she said. That’s particularly true, she said, as existing hubs like New York and Silicon Valley hit limits. “There is a total focus on tech talent, design talent, machine learning, A.I. — it’s just talent. It’s all I hear as the great limiting factor to growth.” The governor said she responded by highlighting the state’s colleges as well as education initiatives like K-12 computer science and the Wavemaker Fellowship. “The [initial] reaction almost always is kind of, well, why would I consider Rhode Island? And then when I go through the pitch, almost always people say some version of, ‘I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that. That’s better than I realized.'” As for results, Raimondo said some of her conversations ended with promises to “send somebody to check it out,” while others just promised to keep the state in mind. She said, “I really believe it’s all cumulative.” The governor’s trip came the same week CNBC gave Rhode Island a black eye by pushing it back to last pace in the TV network’s business rankings; Raimondo called that “disappointing” and a sign “we’ve got to keep working,” though she also pointed to a U.S. News list that ranks Rhode Island 28th. As for whether the CNBC ranking cast a pall over her conversations in Sun Valley, she said, “No — it did not come up. It definitely did not come up.”

2. Lobbyist Frank O’Brien may have done the best job summarizing the intensifying IGT-Twin River feud this week when he tweeted, “It’s the ‘full Rhode Island.'” The betting businesses’ battle over IGT’s proposed contract extension features an all-star cast of politicos: Don Sweitzer, Marc Crisafulli, Bob Goldberg, Mark Ryan, George CaruoloDavid CruiseChris BoylePeter BaptistaAndrew Annaldo, Patti Doyle, Bill Fischer, plus others waiting in the wings. IGT officials seem slightly surprised by the ferocity of the assault led by newly minted Twin River exec Crisafulli, an IGT alum from its GTECH days. They’ve also grumbled about Twin River trying to turn itself into Common Cause by raising good-government concerns about IGT getting a contract extension without going out to bid. (Particularly since Twin River itself got a no-bid contract to run the two casinos.) Yet there’s a reason Twin River is getting a hearing: Governor Raimondo’s proposed contract extension is worth at least $1 billion to IGT over 20 years, it affects about $400 million a year in state revenue, and Rhode Islanders are understandably wary about anything that looks like “special deals for special people,” to use Raimondo’s phrase. Key context: both companies have transformed since they got their current deals in the Carcieri era. IGT is a publicly traded, Italian-controlled, U.K.-based corporation, with $4.8 billion in revenue and over 12,000 employees worldwide. (IGT’s Providence tower is one of its three principal operating facilities.) Twin River Worldwide Holdings is now publicly traded, too, but it’s considerably smaller than IGT, with $438 million in revenue and 4,900 employees last year. “Both companies seek crony capitalism no-bid state contracts,” tweeted Scott MacKay. “Hard to root for either. One fact: IGT can move its operation anywhere, Twin River can’t.” IGT is likely to lean on that threat to employment in Rhode Island, as well as Twin River’s lack of experience in the gaming tech space, over the coming weeks. But Crisafulli knows the business well from his years at GTECH, so Twin River can’t be counted out.

3. The CNBC list drew a lot of attention on social media, including from economic-development expert Bruce Katz, who tweeted: “I find this ranking difficult to understand given large drop in RI unemployment, investments in infrastructure, off-shore wind, innovation vouchers + innovation campuses, attraction of Infosys and other significant companies and many other smart moves.” Turns out Katz had good reason to have Rhode Island on the mind: on Wednesday night I ran into him in Providence, and discovered he was in town to interview with Commerce RI about writing its new economic development study. Katz, of course, helped put together the 2015 Brookings Institution report that provided the blueprint for the Raimondo administration on economic development. Katz has since left Brookings, and now runs a consultancy called New Localism Advisers. The other three contenders are Camoin Associates, TIP Strategies, and The Research Associates. Commerce spokesperson Matt Sheaff says there’s no timeline yet for making a pick.

4. Officials will cut the ribbon on the Wexford building on the old 195 land this Wednesday. And for those who want a closer look at the project, the Cambridge Innovation Center has scheduled a “first look” event on Aug. 22.

5. Here’s a dispatch from WPRI’s Steph Machado at Providence City Hall: “The mystery of how much the city of Providence will pay Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré this year is solved: he’s going to make the same amount as last year. The issue of Paré’s pay stub was up in the air last week after the City Council voted to cut his budgeted salary by nearly $40,000 in the budget plan that was later signed by Mayor Elorza. But the administration says he will continue to make about $162,000 this fiscal year. How is this possible? Council leaders also agreed to restore funding for the long-vacant fire chief job after a backlash against their original plan to eliminate it. Since Paré is acting fire chief, the administration says they will pay him for both roles to avoid his salary decreasing. This also means that if the city actually hires a fire chief in the next year, Paré would indeed get that pay cut. So will they advertise the chief job? Paré tells me, ‘yes, eventually’ he plans to post the job again after several unsuccessful attempts to hire a chief. When I asked Mayor Elorza the same question this week, he said he was ‘comfortable’ with the way the department is being run, but would consider it. “

6. And here’s a dispatch, also out of Providence, from WPRI’s Eli Sherman: “State intervention in Providence schools appears increasingly likely as the fallout continues from the John Hopkins report that showed the education system in the capital city is among the worst in the nation. (My colleague Steph Machado this week unearthed the names of the unidentified schools in the Hopkins report.) To what degree the state intervenes, however, is still up in the air, as city and state leaders have only agreed publicly that the schools are a mess and action is needed. But the situation should become clearer in coming weeks. Newly named education commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is wrapping up a listening tour today, and the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to discuss possible action on July 23. The Providence Teachers Union, meanwhile, is busy gearing up for whatever comes next, as its contract was heavily criticized in the report. Target 12 has learned members of the American Federation of Teachers, the PTU’s national affiliate, have been in Rhode Island to hold meetings with city and state officials, and PTU President Maribeth Calabro confirmed in an email Friday she was scheduled to meet with AFT President Randi Weingarten in Washington, D.C., ‘to get support for the PTU around the issues in the report.’ Ultimately, what results from all the public and private action will likely either reinforce or rebuke Monday’s Wall Street Journal editorial calling Providence schools a ‘horror show of government and union neglect.'”

7. DCYF will soon be looking for a new director: Trista Piccola is moving to Arizona with her family.

8. Another week brings yet more evidence of Congressman Cicilline’s rising prominence. A Roll Call tally found in the first half of 2019 Cicilline made the second most TV appearances — 42 — among members of Congress, behind only House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff. (In a blow to his ego, though, Roll Call labeled Cicilline a “once obscure” lawmaker.) Cicilline will be back in the national headlines next week when his antitrust subcommittee interrogates a panel of executives from tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Google; Politico reports he huddled with Facebook co-founder-turned-critic Chris Hughes in advance of the meeting. Cicilline also found himself trying to tamp down the escalating war of wards between Speaker Pelosi and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, insisting to reporters, “I know this is of great interest to the media, but the reality is that we’re a big, a very diverse caucus and that is one of our great strengths.”

9. Edna O’Neill Mattson is a name veteran Rhode Island politicos will certainly recognize. The 83-year-old and longtime CCRI staffer has served as Rhode Island’s Democratic National Committeewoman since 2006, and she’s been a part of the state’s presidential nominating process for approaching a half-century. The North Kingstown Democratic Town Committee plans to honor Mattson’s years of service during a tribute event the evening of July 30 at the Quonset ‘O’ Club. “Edna has contributed so much to the Democratic Party for decades,” said state Rep. Julie Casimiro, one of the organizers. “It’s time that we recognize that. Edna was a female pioneer before being a female pioneer was popular.” As part of the night, Casimiro says the NK Dems plan to present Mattson with the first-ever Edna O’Neill Mattson Award, which they plan to give out every year to a Rhode Island Democrat who has given notable service to the party.

10. Rhode Island Democratic Party divides on display once again: Portsmouth state Rep. Dennis Canario has quit his town Democratic committee over ideological differences.

11. A local startup on the rise is EG-based Aquanis, which is developing technology to make wind turbines more efficient. The company won a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s highly competitive ARPA-E program last fall, and this week learned it is getting an additional $1 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, too. “It’s hugely important,” Aquanis CEO Neal Fine said on this week’s Executive Suite. The company has been supported by state programs, too: Fine says Aquanis “wouldn’t be here” without the early support of the state-backed Slater Technology Fund, and it also received a $50,000 innovation voucher from Commerce RI. As you’d expect, Fine has high hopes for the local wind energy industry. “I like to bring up all the time when I’m in the company of wind turbine people that I’m from Rhode Island, because we were the first with an offshore wind farm,” he said. “Around the world, it’s a big deal. We obviously have some momentum there, and I’m very bullish about Rhode Island’s participation in this industry.”

12. Tough week for Pawtucket, as Worcester broke ground on Polar Park in preparation for the PawSox to make their move north. The ballclub’s relocation is often lumped in with the closure of Memorial Hospital and potential departure of Hasbro to paint a picture of a city in decline — but Lindsey Lerner doesn’t buy it. Lerner is founder of Level Exchange, a company based in the Isle Brewers Guild complex that provides recording studios and other consulting services to musicians. (A Bulldog, Lerner got the business going by winning Bryant’s New Ventures Competition in 2015.) “Being in Pawtucket has been phenomenal,” Lerner said on this week’s Executive Suite. “Because it’s so small. Obviously we know some things have left Pawtucket, but I think we have a huge opportunity there. The downtown space is ready for the taking.”

13. Another newsy week for our friendly rivals over on Kenney Drive: Senators Reed and Whitehouse paid tribute to the late great Jim Taricani on the Senate floor (video here), and Frank Coletta announced he is retiring from WJAR after a 41-year run. I raise my coffee cup to toast Frank’s long career on the Rhode Island airwaves. (And a fun fact that Frank himself reminded me about at Jim’s wake: he and Taricani both got their start as news broadcasters on West Warwick radio stations.)

14. Rhode Island lost one of its musical greats last month with the passing of Jack Renner, who died June 19 at his home in Portsmouth. Renner co-founded Telarc, a label known for its pristine recordings of classical and jazz artists. Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Mel Tormé and Seiji Ozawa were just a few of the legends who released albums on Telarc over the years.

15. Sign of the times: Starbucks will stop selling newspapers.

16. “Burnout is an issue for workers across the board,” The Globe reports.

17. Helpful summertime advice: how to avoid getting struck by lightning.

18. What prominent D.C. types are packing for beach reads this summer.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersJoseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI Office, and Aaron Weisman, U.S. attorney for the district of Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Aquanis founder and CEO Neal Fine; Level Exchange founder Lindsey Lerner. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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