The Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. approved a new leader Tuesday as part of an overhaul of the quasi-governmental agency, which has been criticized as ineffective in a state with a struggling economy and whose 12.9 percent unemployment rate is third worst in the nation.
Ioanna Morfessis has been a private consultant based in Phoenix since 2004, but has more than 25 years of experience as an economic development official in Arizona and Maryland. The corporation's board unanimously approved her appointment as executive director with an annual salary of $250,000, $150,000 more than her predecessor, Saul Kaplan, according to The Providence Journal.
The state is struggling with how to close a roughly $220 million budget deficit and has a hiring freeze, but Gov. Don Carcieri, chairman of the Economic Development Corp.'s board, defended the salary.
"You want to do a national search, you want to recruit the best candidate you can find then you're going to have to pay for that," he told the newspaper.
The appointment must be approved by the state Senate. Senate spokesman Greg Pare said it had not yet received the appointment yet, and he did not immediately know when the Senate would consider it.
"It is incumbent upon Ms. Morfessis to present herself and her qualifications to the Senate, which will make a decision in the best interest of the people of Rhode Island," Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed said in a statement.
A report released in April by a panel appointed by Carcieri found the Economic Development Corp. had failed to create a consistent economic growth strategy and failed to attract new employers to the state. It also suggested a nationwide search for a new director.
Since then, legislation passed to overhaul the corporation's leadership, including allowing the governor to appoint new board members and offer its next executive director a three-year term. Previously, there was no specific term for the position, which is appointed by the governor.
Rep. Donna Walsh, a Democrat who served on the panel, called Morfessis a positive, forceful person who could bring decision-makers such as the governor, legislators and economic officials together to formulate a coordinated economic strategy _ something she hasn't seen in the past.
"I think we just need to have someone out in front of EDC that can proclaim all the good things about Rhode Island and make the connection with people throughout the country," she said.
Walsh said she thought there had been too much emphasis placed on luring large businesses to the state, and she would like the corporation to focus more on encouraging small-business development.
Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Economic Development Corp., said Morfessis' experience leading the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore showed she could build coalitions among cities and towns, and among political opponents. He said he was also impressed with her work there on waterfront development issues, which is key for Rhode Island.
Stokes said he wants the agency to focus on growing existing companies and to become "one-stop shopping" for cities, towns, state agencies and companies looking for information.
Associated Press Writer Ray Henry contributed to this report.