PROVIDENCE – Despite all the handwringing and gloom-and-doom pronouncements about the death of manufacturing in America, and the movement of such businesses to countries with cheap labor and few regulations over the past several decades, the United States has knocked China out of first place as the favorite place for foreign investment for the first time since 2001. A federal economic development official brought that bright bit of news to a group of Rhode Island businessmen and women who assembled at the University of Rhode Island’s downtown campus Monday to discuss a new Obama administration initiative called “Investing in Manufacturing Community Partnership” (IMCP), intended to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing and create jobs in cities across the country.
The federal government will be awarding grants of $200,000 each to as many as 25 communities across the country to help them come up with long-term economic development strategies intended to create a business environment that leads to well-paying, sustainable manufacturing jobs, according to Matt Erskine, deputy assistant secretary for economic development for the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA).
A second round of “Challenge Grants” of up to $25 million each will be awarded to “support the implementation of community strategies for attracting, retaining, and expanding private investment in the manufacturing sector and increasing international trade and exports.”
“Over the last five years,” Erskine said, “EDA has invested more than $24 million in economic development projects in Rhode Island. We look forward to a continued partnership in the months and years ahead.” Marcel Valois, executive director of the RI Economic Development Corp. (EDC), told The Times after the event that, “We are trying to get all the folks who are passionate about the resurgence of manufacturing together.”
If Rhode Island wins one of the $200,000 grants, Valois said, “it will help us define an approach where we can bring to the Rhode Island manufacturing base a whole series of resources – whether it is college and university resources, whether it is financial resources – to bear to grow our manufacturing base and have a resurgence of manufacturing in Rhode Island. After this planning round, they intend on investing millions of dollars and we’re trying to position Rhode Island to be eligible for a major investment from the federal government.”
Valois said Rhode Island probably will not totally reverse the flight of manufacturing that has been going on for nearly a half century, but “we can stop the erosion of manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island and make sure manufacturing is always a sustainable piece of our economy going forward.”
Rhode Island, Valois told the group, “has a long history of making things” that dates back to the 1700s when Slater Mill was built on the banks of the Blackstone River. “This was the beginning of an Industrial Revolution that propelled the United States to a pre-eminent position of economic power. It began right here in little old Rhode Island through ingenuity, innovation, mercantile prowess, access to water power and international shipping routes.
“Rhode Island developed a ‘maker’s culture’ and built an infrastructure that supported a vibrant manufacturing economy,” he said.
But over the last 20 years, Rhode Island has lost one-half of its manufacturing jobs, Valois related, dropping from more than 83,000 in 1992 to under 40,000 in 2012. Some of that, he explained, was the result of productivity improvements and technological innovation. “Much, however, was due to evaporating markets, inability of local makers to change quickly enough to meet changing demands, product lines with limited customer appeal, competitiveness factors and just not being ready quickly enough to play in a bigger worldwide market that demanded just-in-time delivery, and constant innovation in design, quality and process.”
Sen. Jack Reed, who organized the forum, cited, “the need to provide incentives, support and encouragement for increased manufacturing. It has to be a major part of our economy (as) it once was.
“There is not one thing we can do,” Reed said, “we have to do many things – improving our education system, our infrastructure, our labor force, all of this is necessary.”
“Our Rhode Island manufacturing sector is actually chugging along,” suggested Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “We could help it, there is a lot more that could be done, but when you look at General Dynamics making the submarines, (Cumberland’s) Hope Global making those laces that go off to China, Newport Biodiesel turning our restaurant waste into reusable fuel, Alex and Ani with their exploding popular jewelry products, we’ve got a good base here; we’ve got a lot to work with and we want to help.
Rep. David Cicilline noted that President Barack Obama “laid out a clear vision for growing out economy from the middle-class out. I’m very proud that the president identified a strong manufacturing base as the first cornerstone of creating a better bargain for middle-class families.”
The 1st District congressman said “we are standing at a pivotal moment, where we are seeing growing opportunities, especially at the intersection of innovation and design, that could help insure that Rhode Island can lead the way in the revolution of advance manufacturing that is already underway in this country.”
Every new manufacturing job, Cicilline asserted, creates 4.6 jobs to support it.
Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron