Rhode Islanders will go to the polls Nov. 8 to make their choices on hot-button races for governor and, in the western part of the state, Congress.
But they’ll also be voting on ballot questions. Here’s what you need to know about statewide ballot Question 1: whether Rhode Island should borrow money to put $100 million into blue economy efforts at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in Narragansett.
This money would support the “blue economy”? What’s the blue economy?
The blue economy refers to a bunch of different industries that touch on the ocean, bay, and coastal areas of the state. That includes ports and shipping, defense, marine trades, ocean-based renewables, aquaculture and fisheries, and tourism and recreation. It supports about 9 percent of Rhode Island’s gross regional product, and between 2010 and 2019, it grew two times faster than the economy at large, according to public figures.
Rhode Island is trying to improve its blue economy — it is, if you’ll please pardon this shopworn phrase, the Ocean State. A lot of that work is happening at the URI Bay Campus, with a specific focus on ocean engineering, oceanography, and other marine-related areas. But the Narragansett campus, a few miles from the Kingston flagship, could use some TLC.
And Question 1 would bring that TLC? How?
If a majority votes yes on Question 1, Rhode Island will borrow money to support $100 million in public funding for repairs and new facilities for marine disciplines at the Bay Campus.
And where, exactly, will the money go?
Another good question! URI plans to replace multiple aging buildings with a “state-of-the-art ocean engineering complex,” which will have an ocean engineering education and research center and a wave and acoustics laboratory. They’re now working out of “temporary” buildings that are several decades old, supporters of the bond say. The university is also looking to replace the Horn building with what they’re calling a new “ocean frontiers building.”
A more specific breakdown of costs associated with each component wasn’t available. If approved, construction is supposed to be completed and ready for use by September 2026.
Somewhat relatedly, the URI Research Foundation was also a finalist for another $78 million in federal competitive grant funding for the Bay Campus as part of broader plans for rejuvenation, but the U.S. Commerce Department didn’t pick it.
Still, URI is forging ahead with plans at the Bay Campus. Passing these bonds to boost the blue economy will help create new companies here, help existing ones expand, and get people good jobs, supporters say. A majority voting no would mean the bonds would not be issued. It is one of three statewide bond questions, which also includes $250 million for school construction and $50 million for the environment and public recreation facilities. There are also local referenda.
So it’s $100 million, right?
Yep, but with bonds, another important number to look at is the borrowing costs. The state estimates $60.5 million in interest, bringing the cost to $160.5 million over 20 years. That assumes a 5 percent interest rate — which, although interest rates have gone up, is actually still a conservative estimate based on the municipal bond market right now, where rates are still hovering at 4 percent and below.
What are supporters saying about it?
“This November, the state and its voters have a generational opportunity to invest in URI, and really to invest in the future of Rhode Island,” Marc Parlange, URI’s president, said at an event at the Bay Campus last week kicking off the campaign to vote yes on 1.
“Vote yes on 1 so we can hire more Rhode Islanders,” Tom Giordano, the executive director of the CEO roundtable Partnership for Rhode Island, said at the same event.
And what about people who aren’t directly involved?
We asked Michael DiBiase of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. The nonprofit think tank doesn’t have an official position on the bond question. But, DiBiase said, one thing to keep in mind is that Rhode Island needs to invest more in higher education — it’s currently about 30 percent below the national average, he said. Also, although interest rates are going up, rates are still not historically high for municipal bonds.
Borrowing “is one way the state has invested more in higher ed,” DiBiase said. “We have not, even in this very strong revenue picture, substantially increased the operating budgets for higher ed. This is one way the state can offset that.”