2015-04-02 / Around Town

Council Eyes Entrepreneurs

By Barry Bridges

Newport City Councilor John Florez wants to make the City by the Sea a top choice for entrepreneurs whose ideas and energy have the potential to power the area’s economic engine.

“Everyone talks about job growth, but these are just terms which mean nothing without political will and drive,” he said.

Following up on his words, Florez is hoping to give the city an edge through a resolution that received the unanimous support of his colleagues as it was endorsed at the City Council’s meeting on Wednesday, March 25.

The measure describes many cities across the country that are capitalizing on changing work force trends by targeting “solopreneurs” and directs the Newport city administration to “investigate and put forth an economic development plan with the aim of targeting young entrepreneurs” with efforts to create “workshops, educational tools, and workspace and housing opportunities.” The goal is to redefine Newport as a “community with abundant resources for entrepreneurs.”

Elaborating with Newport This Week, Florez described his initiative as a way to help stem a projected population drop in the city over the next few decades. He said that statistics show that Newport will have a 24 percent decrease in population over the next 30 years, with a lack of jobs as a factor.

The councilor also pointed to other changing work force trends. “The nine-to-five model is changing rapidly,” he said. His resolution points out the fact that “currently 34 percent of the United States work force can be categorized as freelancers, contractors or an individual that owns and operates an independent business with no additional employees, and by 2020, it is estimated that the figure will rise to 50 percent for the total United States work force.”

Florez said that the recentlyunveiled incubator model at the Sheffield School is an example of the multi-faceted approaches that the city can take to bring entrepreneurs to the city. He hopes to investigate other abandoned city-owned properties that could be put to better use. For example, private funding could transform the former Cranston Calvert School into flexible housing, Florez said, noting that most successful programs elsewhere often have an affordable housing component.

Santa Cruz, Calif., is an example of a city that has established a “combination of affordable flex space and affordable residential housing” to draw entrepreneurs, according to Florez. He described how the city’s former mayor, Ryan Coonerty, has set a precedent by creating NextSpace, a program that has encouraged job creation there. “He reached out to a critical mass by creating shared workspaces. This concept fits in perfectly with what we’re presently doing at the Sheffield School,” said Florez.

In describing steps that he took to launch the Santa Cruz program, Coonerty said, “We decided we needed to attract 200 one-person companies, not one 200-person company. If you can figure out how to get some of these folks to add a couple of people to their business, you get job growth. By directing energy and talent locally, you can have a big impact.”

While Newport’s administration works on a plan, a core group in Newport is also doing preliminary legwork to get things moving. Mark Marosits and Maureen Cronin from Worldways Social Marketing, Kelly Ramirez of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, and Director of Civic Investment Paul Carroll will join Florez in directing the efforts and collaborating with others in the business community.

“We need widespread support. I would like to see the general architecture of a plan in place before the end of the year,” said Florez.

“We hope to be transformative,” he concluded. “While there is no ‘silver bullet’ in terms of economic development, we can reverse long-term trends. We’re a seasonal economy, but these initiatives have the potential to transform us into a year-round economy.”

In other business, the council:

. Approved a resolution asking legislators to oppose the “Taylor Swift tax,” a provision in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget that would impose a new statewide property tax on non-owner occupied residences and vacant land valued at over $1 million. The divided vote was 4-3. Councilors Lynn Ceglie and Justin McLaughlin wanted more information on what they viewed as one piece of a very complicated state budget picture and felt that the vote was premature. Councilor Naomi Neville also voted against the resolution. . Unanimously requested that legislators reject a revised mooring fees bill (H 5847) introduced on March 12 by Rep. Scott Slater, DProvidence. The bill, which would also create a new harbor patrol, is scheduled for a committee hearing on Thursday, April 2. “This proposed change in state legislation would really jeopardize what happens in Newport and would affect many local boaters,” said Councilor Kathryn Leonard.

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