2015-07-30 / Front Page

City Funds Economic Plan

By Barry Bridges

An initiative by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce to create a new organization to spearhead regional economic development has received lukewarm support from Newport city leaders.

On Wednesday, July 22, councilors voted 4-3 to earmark a second year appropriation of $25,000 for the effort, following up on a $20,000 commitment last year. According to Chamber officials, the goal of the Greater Newport and East Bay Development Corporation (GNEBDC) will be to retain and expand existing businesses in the area while creating marketing strategies and programs to attract new companies to Newport and Bristol counties.

Councilors Marco Camacho, Lynn Ceglie, and John Florez joined with Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano in approving the funding to move the idea forward.

Commenting on the regional na- ture of the program, Ceglie said, “I see this as an opportunity to work together and to build on our strengths. Communities that work together to show their diversified strengths could bring more economic opportunity to the area.”

Camacho thought that Newport should take the lead in cooperating with nearby municipalities and wanted to send a positive signal that the city is on board with the concept. “I believe this appropriation is the spark that the state and private groups will be looking for,” he said. “They’re looking for leadership on our end right now.”

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano concurred. “In terms of regionalization, we are too small a community to do it by ourselves. I think it’s important that we work with the others. This gives us a kind of a placeholder in getting [state and federal] funding that could diversify the economy here.”

But Councilors Kathryn Leonard, Justin McLaughlin, and Naomi Neville were concerned about the structure and future budget for the organization, and were not certain how GNEBDC would meld with economic development work already being done by the city under the leadership of Director of Civic Investment Paul Carroll.

Neville’s objections were primarily based on the fact that GNEBDC is envisioned as a separate entity from the Chamber, with its own staff and significant budget. “As the proposal stands, it would be a formation of a new group that would have its own $400,000 budget. At this time, there’s not a plan as to how [future financing] would happen. It makes me concerned that somehow the city would be obligated or somehow required to help significantly fund this.”

Voicing similar concerns, McLaughlin said, “Although we’re looking at substantial funding requests from the City of Newport and the Town of Middletown… it’s not nearly enough money to provide what they need to move forward, and it’s not clear how they’re going to get the rest of the money.” He added, “I’m a strong believer in regionalization and economic development, but it’s not clear to me where this aligns with what the City of Newport is already doing.”

Last year, both Newport and Middletown contributed $20,000 for the proposal, while Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Bristol gave smaller amounts. With the van Beuren Foundation providing twoto one matching grant monies, the Chamber embarked on a nationwide search for consultants to give form to the idea. TIP Strategies out of Austin, Texas, was selected and has produced a work plan to create GNEBDC as “the region’s economic ambassador.”

This month’s appropriation from Newport was in response to the Chamber seeking additional monies from local municipalities to implement TIP’s recommendations as the initiative moves into its second year. Next steps include deciding on GNEBDC’s legal structure and hiring a full-time professional to get the program up and running.

The Chamber ultimately envisions a three-person office that would move away from local government support while relying more on private and public-private funding in meeting its budget needs.

Erin Donovan-Boyle, the new executive director of the Chamber, joined former director Jody Sullivan in briefing the council on the status of the program earlier in July. Donovan-Boyle explained, “The overall vision of regional economic development is to promote the benefits of establishing, expanding, and relocating businesses to the region.” She also remarked that “a regional approach is the way that things are moving, and such a strategy is increasingly critical in securing public sector dollars, private sector dollars, and foundation support.”

GNEBDC’s sole purpose will be to work on economic development for the region, according to Sullivan. “Nobody is now getting up every day to help businesses grow and to look for new business… there’s so much on everybody’s plate. You want to do that, but you just do your regular job. This initiative is much bigger that what we do every day as an entrylevel membership operation.”

Concluding their ultimately successful appeal to the council, Sullivan said, “The fact that we would have a person who gets up and lives and breathes promoting our region and talking to our businesses and understanding what they need is just an amazing possibility to me.”

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