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Dan Davidson '11.5: Chafee-Taveras partnership integral to R.I.'s future

Many political commentators, anticipating the newly divided U.S. Congress, are predicting record levels of discord and gridlock in 2011. In Rhode Island, however, we may find ourselves hearing a word rarely uttered in conjunction with stories about national politics: cooperation.

WRNI-AM reporter Ian Donnis speculated in a recent blog post that prospects are strong for a productive relationship between governor-elect Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 and mayor-elect Angel Taveras. Donnis noted that Taveras, like President Obama, declined to endorse fellow Democrat Frank Caprio in the governor's race. And Taveras himself told Donnis, "I think we're going to have a good relationship going forward, and I think the governor-elect understands that for the state of Rhode Island to be successful, the city of Providence needs to be successful."

Indeed, the fate of Rhode Island is inextricably linked to that of Providence, where over 15 percent of the state's population resides. Coordination between the governor and the mayor is a critical ingredient in the recipe for economic recovery and future expansion.

With the state desperate to grow business, a good place for the new governor and mayor to start their partnership is the emerging local food industry. Agriculture is one of the few sectors in the state's economy growing in spite of the economic downturn. But don't let the Rhody Fresh milk around campus fool you — there is still a significant disconnect between Providence consumers and Rhode Island's farmers, and there is plenty of space for this burgeoning industry to fill.

If Chafee and Taveras focus on supporting local foods, it will be to the benefit of Providence residents, who will get better and healthier food choices, and Rhode Island's farmers, whose market will expand. The city and state could work together to convert unused land or buildings in Providence into industrial kitchens and lease them to local food companies. These kitchens are often a crucial part of food production, but are in short supply. The city could also partner with the state to link unemployed Providence residents to farms in search of labor. A Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership survey last spring found that farmers listed a need for workers as a top concern.

Transportation is another area in which substantive cooperation between Chafee and Taveras will boost the state's economy. Getting around our small city using the existing labyrinth of bus and trolley networks is far more difficult than it should be. Inefficient transit is more than just a hassle for students — it is holding the city back economically.

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is about to embark on a multi-year project to overhaul Providence's trolley system. If done properly, the new trolleys will help people get to work, transport visitors efficiently to the city's attractions and spur economic development near routes. As is always the case with cash-strapped RIPTA, there are concerns about funding. Chafee must engage with Taveras and keep pressure on RIPTA to ensure that this project is successfully completed.

Since cutting unnecessary expenditures should be a top priority for both the Chafee and Taveras administrations, a coordinated effort to revamp Rhode Island's approach to public safety would be welcome. The state's corrections budget has exploded over the last two decades, and any serious attempt to reduce spending in this area must focus on Providence. The city, after all, accounts for a sizeable chunk of the state's crime. Furthermore, most offenders are released to Providence, and far more parolees and probationers live in the city than anywhere else in Rhode Island.

Chafee must work with Taveras to build the resources that help keep people out of prison, like drug treatment clinics and extracurricular programs for youth. This will require investment in the city at the expense of Cranston's Adult Correctional Institute, however, which will surely irk that municipality's leadership as well as the powerful prison guards' lobby. Chafee needs to articulate to the public how money invested in Providence instead of prisons can cut the state's overall expenditures on the criminal justice system by reducing crime.

There is of course one issue more critical than any of these — Providence's public schools. The problems and potential solutions are far beyond the scope of this column, but suffice it to say that for all of Chafee's talk about quick steps toward economic recovery, Rhode Island's struggle to compete will continue if education in its largest city doesn't improve. It's critical that Chafee put the state's muscle behind the new mayor in his efforts to improve public schools.

I believe both of these men will make good leaders. But Rhode Island needs truly great leadership to turn around the local economy and lay the groundwork for lasting growth. If Chafee and Taveras forge a partnership that produces results for the city, and in turn the state, they may very well be remembered as great leaders.

 

 

 

Dan Davidson '11.5 is a political science concentrator from Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at daniel_davidson (at) brown.edu.


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