As Rhode Island turns the corner into the new year, the business community is seeing some serious changes that could help reshape the state’s future — from health care and life sciences to nonprofits.
Yet the challenges the state’s business leaders faced in 2022 aren’t going away, from the staffing crisis inside health care systems to the lack of housing to relocate or expand business in Rhode Island.
Here’s what to watch in business after the New Year.
A housing crisis, lack of shelter, and the housing secretary in the middle.
Hundreds of Rhode Islanders — including working families with children — are being forced to sleep outside because of the lack of shelter beds and housing units in the state. It’s coming after decades of the state under-investing in its housing market. In fact, more than half of Rhode Island’s lowest-income renters spend more than half of their income on housing alone, and are at risk of homelessness, according to “The Gap” report, which looks at the shortage of affordable homes across the country.
The lack of available units is an issue business executives face when they look to relocate or expand in Rhode Island. But how can the state measure progress when (and if) it begins the work to tackle the crisis in 2023? That’s still unclear.
Some local and national reports have collected data on how dire Rhode Island’s housing market is overall. But there has not been a statewide count on where Rhode Island’s housing stock stands as a baseline. Josh Saal, who was recently elevated to be the state’s first cabinet-level housing secretary, is expected to turn in an integrated housing report to the General Assembly by Dec. 31. The report, according to the Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s office, is expected to list key data points, such as the total number of units by income type and unit types.
Saal, whose performance has been criticized by Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, is also expected to work on a “statewide housing plan” in 2023. But it’s unclear how much the public will be allowed to weigh in and who will be involved.
“I noticed that when you have one thousand voices in the room, then you’ll have one thousand bullet points,” Saal said in a December interview.
For those who can afford to own a home, the situation isn’t much better.
Recently released data from the Rhode Island Association of Realtors showed that 660 single-family homes were sold in November, which is a nearly 35 percent drop compared to this time last year.
Bryant Da Cruz, president of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, explained there are more move-up homes selling than starter homes, which Rhode Island has a lack of, and the demand is keeping prices high. He said the state must find ways to increase its housing stock as the shortage has now reached “a critical level.”
“We must also find ways to increase our housing stock in Rhode Island, the shortage of which has now reached a critical level,” Da Cruz said in mid-December.
Will office workers ever return?
There is new life in downtown lately: New restaurants, grocery stores, and cafés are opening in long-vacant storefronts. A nightlife scene is fully returning after the pandemic. But office building tenants are still rethinking whether they will ever fully return to the financial center, leading some landlords to consider transforming old office -- such as those in the Superman building -- into residential space.
Construction on big development plans in Providence could (finally) begin.
The Superman building, which has been vacant for the last decade, was expected to have interior demolition begin “by the end of 2022″ to make way for 285 apartments and mixed-use on the ground floors. It doesn’t appear as though that has actually happened, and Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the owner, did not respond to the Globe for more information in late December. Think you want to live there? Here’s what the rents are expected to look like.
The proposed Fane Tower in the Jewelry District, which is expected to be Rhode Island’s tallest building if it is constructed, underwent another redesign. Among the changes to the 46-story skyscraper plan are a new facade design, which eliminates two floors of parking, reduces the parking podium, and scraps many of the exterior’s balconies. However, developer Jason Fane won’t set a construction date until he sees how the design review plays out, according to a spokesman.
There’s some momentum around the life sciences.
There’s an appetite from some leaders to finally jumpstart Rhode Island’s life sciences industry. There’s some talk of forming a quasi-public Rhode Island Biotech and Life Science hub if the rest of the General Assembly is as interested in it as the House Speaker. Regardless, Brown University is planning to build an integrated life sciences building in Providence’s Jewelry District, which will eventually hold state-of-the-art laboratory space.
New leaders at some key nonprofits.
For the last 15 years, Neil Steinberg has led the charge as CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. But in May, Steinberg will retire and a new leader will take his place.
Election season left more than one disappointed political candidate without a job come January, and many are eyeing the position. They’ll have to keep waiting: the foundation is conducting a national search for his replacement. The search committee includes members of the foundation’s board and Spencer Stuart, a global executive advisory firm.
At Rhode Island Kids Count, the longtime executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant has stepped away and Paige Clausius-Parks has taken her place. Prior to taking the role, Clausius-Parks worked as a policy analyst for Kids Count where she was responsible for policy analysis, advocacy, research, and project management in subjects related to education and economic well-being.
The new CEOs of the hospitals and how they work together (or not).
It’s been nearly a year since Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and the Federal Trade Commission rejected the proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England — Rhode Island’s two largest health care systems. But the systems’ leaders that tried to combine their hospital groups have stepped down and a new regime has taken their place.
At Care New England, Dr. Michael Wagner began as CEO and president in early December. He previously worked at Tufts Medicine in Boston. In early 2023, John Fernandez will leave Mass Eye and Ear to become the president and CEO of Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest system.
The two men have worked for competing organizations in the past, but will be expected to join efforts and collaborate. Like many hospital administrators in the US, both face critical staffing shortages and financial losses.
When asked about Fernandez in a recent interview, Wagner said the two are already in touch. They served together on the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals.
“I can’t think of a better person to be at Lifespan,” Wagner said of Fernandez. “He is smart, he is incredibly hard-working, and he’s savvy.
“He’ll always fight for what’s right for Lifespan,” Wagner added. “But he is a tremendous executive to partner with.”