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Call to the Bullpen

Rhode Island is poised to clear away the last bits of wreckage left from its failed $75-million investment in former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s bankrupt video game company, 38 Studios.

A bill moving through the state legislature will re-brand the troubled Economic Development Corporation as the Rhode Island Commerce Corp., according to a report in the Providence Journal. The name change actually took effect on Jan. 1, but additional action was requested by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in order to grandfather in about $17 million in federal grants the EDC was in the process of administering for small-business development, broadband infrastructure, brownfield remediation, port security and other initiatives.

The governor says the legislative tweak is needed to make sure the Feds know the RI development agency isn’t closing up shop,  just giving itself a new moniker. Without the proposed changes, federal agencies would have to approve transferring existing grants to the Commerce Corp. as if it were a completely new entity, the Journal reports.

“There is no guaranty that any federal agency would approve such a transfer and there is a high degree of probability that certain of the grants—which have a limited timeframe left for expenditure of funds—would be lost,” EDC legal counsel Thomas Carlotto said, in written testimony to the RI State Senate.

Rhode Island’s ill-fated decision to grant $75 million in loan guarantees to Schilling’s video game start-up is the gift that keeps on giving. Studio 38 (the name came from the number Schilling wore on his uniform as he hurled the BoSox to their first world championship in 84 years) got off to an impressive start with its first critically acclaimed gamer offering, but later collapsed in debt when Schilling overreached and tried to expand too rapidly into the multi-billion-dollar Internet-based, multiple-player gaming sector.

The retired major league pitcher quickly reinvented himself as an ESPN broadcaster, but putting the pieces back together at the EDC proved more difficult.

Gov. Chafee cleaned house at the EDC in the wake of the Studio 38 scandal, bringing in a new team of top administrators, but the organizational structure of the new agency has continued to be a subject for debate in Rhode Island for the past year. Chafee opposed last year’s reorganization plan, saying that it would take resources away from efforts to revive the state’s economy.

In the $8.5-billion budget he submitted to lawmakers last week, Chafee proposed delaying to July 2015 the creation of a new Executive Office of Commerce in order to give his successor a chance to evaluate the plan; he proposed keeping the Office of Regulatory Reform within the Department of Administration rather than moving it to the new commerce office, and he wants to bring the state’s Film and TV Office, which oversees tax credit programs for films and certain theatrical productions, under the commerce office’s oversight, along with the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, according to the Journal report.

The governor also has recommended the creation of a new $75,000-a-year creative and cultural director job at the Commerce Corp. Under the bill that eventually became law this year (without Chafee’s signature), a new governor-appointed commerce secretary will serve as RI’s primary advocate on economic development matters and oversee the new Executive Office of Commerce, which takes over the duties of the state Department of Business Regulation on Feb. 1. In April, the new Executive Office will take over regulatory reform and housing/community development functions currently assigned to the Department of Administration. The office will also oversee the re-named Commerce Corp.

One thing seems certain after the reshuffling is complete: Rhode Island’s new Commerce Corp. won’t be co-signing any loans for celebrity start-ups.

 

 

 

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