Nominee at RI economic agency promises jobs focus

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 3:19 PM

The nominee who would run Rhode Island's economic development agency in a state with nearly 13 percent unemployment said Friday she wants to connect the unemployed with jobs but needs at least three months to assemble a plan for reviving the struggling economy.

Gov. Don Carcieri earlier this week nominated Ioanna Morfessis, 58, to become executive director of the Economic Development Corporation, which was critcized by a review panel in April as ineffective after its last director resigned. Morfessis' nomination is subject to confirmation by the state Senate, which has not scheduled any hearings.

Morfessis, who previously headed organizations in Baltimore and Phoenix focused on economic growth, said during a Statehouse news conference that there are no "silver bullets" to fixing Rhode Island's ailing economy. The state slipped into a deep recession in early 2007 and suffered from 12.9 percent unemployment in October, the third-worst rate in the nation trailing Michigan and Nevada.

Economists predict the jobless rate could peak near 14 percent next year.

"We need to analyze exactly why _ what are structural root causes of why Rhode Island typically goes into a recession first and is the last to emerge from it?" Morfessis said. "It doesn't make sense."

Morfessis promised to present an economic plan of action within 100 to 120 days if she is confirmed to lead the agency. Among her goals is making sure that Rhode Island employers are advertising open positions at state-run job search centers and other local outlets.

"We need to make sure that Rhode Island jobs are first extended to Rhode Islanders without work," she said.

She also promised to reach out to existing businesses in the state and listen to what they say they need to grow.

Morfessis said she would fine tune a strategy for diversifying Rhode Island's economy, which she said is heavily dependent on small businesses. Some of the state's smaller firms have seen their lines of credit from traditional lenders evaporate amid the financial crisis on Wall Street. She would not describe that strategy in detail.

"Are we having companies grow in the growth enterprise areas of the economy?" Morfessis said. "It's one thing to have small business growth, but it's another to make sure that they are surviving and sustaining over the longterm."

That focus on small business may please Democratic legislative leaders such as Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, who recently faulted the Economic Development Corporation for focusing on recruiting large companies to Rhode Island at the expense of helping smaller ones.

The Republican governor ordered a review of the quasi-public agency after its last executive director, Saul Kaplan, resigned last year. In April, that panel concluded that the agency had not created a clear strategy for economic growth and recommended conducting a national search for a new director.

Democrats in the General Assembly responded to the report by merging two boards involved in oversight at the Economic Development Corporation into a single, expanded board. Carcieri said Friday he will nominate additional directors next month.

To attract a wider pool of candidates for the top job, state lawmakers also authorized a three-year term for the next director of the agency since Carcieri leaves office in just over a year.