PROVIDENCE – Last year, Rhode Island’s effort to get a $78 million federal grant to support the blue economy – things like offshore wind power, defense, and aquaculture – came up short.
But a lot of work had gone into applying for it. The University of Rhode Island-led effort was a finalist out of hundreds of applicants, and had gotten a $500,000 federal grant just to apply for the final round. Even after Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s department didn’t pick Rhode Island in the end, the people who were involved in applying decided not to take their ball and go home.
The result is now starting to emerge. This week it got a name, and a new report: The Grow Blue Partnership, which released what it’s calling “Rhode Island’s 2030 Blue Economy Action Plan.” (An executive summary of the report is available online and embedded below.)
At its core, the Grow Blue Partnership is an effort to better position the state to get federal money to support the blue economy for initiatives like training the next generation of workers and research ambitions like a full digital replica of Narragansett Bay, called a “Smart Bay.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of federal funding that’s yet to be released,” said Christian Cowan, the executive director of the URI Research Foundation. “We think there’s an opportunity for Rhode Island to leverage that federal funding.”
It’s also an effort to get everyone working together – instead of one person working on oysters and another on quahogs and another on wind turbines and another on submarines, have them in the same room, cooperating instead of competing. They do share the same ocean and bay, after all.
“To date, much activity occurs in this sector, but it is under-resourced, disjointed, and at times conflicting due to a lack of coordination,” the report says. “This weakens Rhode Island’s position in the regional, national, and global market. With sustained and properly resourced leadership, Rhode Island can scale its existing activities and provide immediate impact for thousands of the state’s residents.”
The report was the work of various institutions, including URI, Rhode Island Commerce, and the CEO roundtable Partnership for Rhode Island, a group whose initiatives include CompeteRI. The Grow Blue Partnership will have an independent advisory board and be staffed as an initiative of the URI Research Foundation. Eventually, in a later phase, it could be spun off into a separate nonprofit.
The report also includes a list of 16 strategies, ranging from “investing in climate adaptation and mitigation strategies to protect Rhode Island’s coast and physical assets” to “creating a statewide Blue Economy Workforce Development Coalition.” The report cautions against getting caught up in a cycle of the next big thing in economic development: “The Blue Economy is the big economic development opportunity.”
Advocates say it’s an important step to work with, and compete with, regional peers.
“Recently, the folks in Massachusetts are starting to talk about their blue economy strategies and continuing to grow them out,” said Pete Rumsey, the chief business development officer at the URI Research Foundation. “So we want to make sure that we’re keeping up with and even acting as one of the leaders with that so that we can cooperate and create a regional cluster.”
The task of getting everyone to cooperate will be, in some ways, significant. On Tuesday night, some of the conflicts around the blue economy were on display when commercial fishermen raised concerns about the Revolution Wind offshore wind farm project.
But there’s a lot of opportunity, and a lot of work already happening around the blue economy, people involved in the effort say. In Rumsey’s words, they want to take what’s good and make it great. Rhode Island voters in November approved a bond initiative to fund $100 million in improvements to URI’s Bay Campus in Narragansett. Offshore wind power projects are starting to emerge, along with shellfish hatcheries.
“We’ve just got to tell our story better,” said Tom Giordano, executive director of the Partnership for Rhode Island, a nonprofit CEO roundtable. “And I think that’s what the Grow Blue initiative does.”
According to the report, the blue economy has a direct impact of $5.2 billion in Rhode Island, employing more than 36,500 people. The largest is defense, with marine trades – like boat building and repair – coming in second.
One of the things the report calls for is a focus on equity – making sure everyone benefits from the blue economy. Rele Abiade, a former aide to US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who launched a consulting firm called OneRhode Consulting and who worked on the report, said she brings her twin daughters to the beach, and for them, it’s normal. But other kids of color will say to her, “What are you talking about, the ocean?”
“There’s a whole generation of kids I’m scared don’t have access,” Abiade said.
“Access” here means not just access to the beach (though that’s part of it), but access to things like K-12 education that will prepare students for the blue economy and those blue economy jobs. The opportunity, Abiade said, is enormous, and it’s important to make sure everyone can tap into it, no matter their race or socioeconomic status. They’re focused on making sure they get the word out on programs like Wind-Win in North Kingstown.
“I think the blue economy is where the jobs are going to be,” Abiade said. “I’m biased, because I’m in this space, but I’m praying and hoping this does not become a report that goes on the shelf – we need to really take this seriously.”