The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. It’s time for Rhode Island to take a deep breath about the old I-195 land – particularly the state’s politicians, who’ve been promising big things from the 19 acres of potential redevelopment for years now. I-195 Commission Chairman Colin Kane said on this week’s Executive Suite he doesn’t expect construction on any buildings to begin there before the fall of 2015, with the spring of 2016 more likely. And as Jef Nickerson has pointed out, Providence already has plenty of undeveloped land in prime locations in the form of surface parking lots (not to mention Victory Place); the fact that developers aren’t snapping those up suggests weak demand. But why should demand be weak, at least for residential construction, when almost all downtown apartments are occupied? Because Providence’s cost structure is out of whack. “Where our challenges are from an economic perspective – in all secondary cities and tertiary cities, not just Providence – is that our rents are not high enough to support appropriate investor returns,” Kane said. Jan Brodie, the 195 commission’s executive director, said property taxes are 30% to 40% higher in Providence than in Boston. Fixing that equation – whether by lowering taxes, raising incomes, loosening labor laws or easing building restrictions – would not only help spur the 195 redevelopment, it would also make other proposed projects such as the Superman building conversion more viable.

2. Speaking of the I-195 land, Gina Raimondo suggested this week it could be given away or sold at low cost to provide a campus of her proposed Rhode Island Innovation Institute. That may or may not be a good idea, but it’s definitely not cost-free. Last April the EDC borrowed $38.4 million on the 195 commission’s behalf to buy the old highway land from the state, which helped defray the original costs of the Iway project. The 195 commission must repay those bonds – plus $7.5 million in interest – over the next 19 years, and if the land isn’t sold at market value Rhode Island taxpayers would presumably have to pay off the bonds instead.

3. Clay Pell’s wandering Prius makes for a good punchline, and it’s given the young candidate’s detractors fodder to argue he’s not ready to be governor. But as Scott MacKay noted, there’s still nearly six months left before the Democratic primary, plenty of time for Pell’s campaign to make people forget about the Prius – and his aides are adamant that if someone drops out of the race, it won’t be him. Look for Pell to try and reset the narrative in the coming weeks with more announcements and endorsements, an effort that began this week with his push for an immediate $10.10 minimum wage and his endorsement by the United Nurses & Allied Professionals union. The next 12 weeks will be a crucial period for Pell to prove he has what it takes to win and to build on his initial 15% support.

4. A recommended read – The Boston Globe’s John L. Allen Jr. on the first year of Pope Francis.

5. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “The plan to bring a streetcar to Rhode Island’s capital city isn’t dead yet. After being denied a federal grant that would have made the project possible last year, Providence officials say they again plan to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation by April 28. ‘The city has advanced its plans to bring streetcars to Providence, and we will again pursue federal funding for the project through the upcoming TIGER grant application process,’ David Ortiz, a spokesman for Mayor Angel Taveras, told WPRI.com. The streetcar would connect the Upper South Providence neighborhood near Rhode Island Hospital to College Hill on the East Side, and has a projected price tag of around $114 million. The cost has scared some folks: City Council President and mayoral candidate Michael Solomon supports the concept, but has said he believes adding more trollies might be a ‘better bang for our buck.’ But Jef Nickerson, who writes the must-read Greater City Providence blog, believes that with RIPTA’s upcoming R-Line rapid bus, proposed new downtown Providence bus hubs and a bike-share system all in the works, the ‘Providence Streetcar creates needed ‘last mile’ connections for our region’s transportation system.’ The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is set to discuss the city’s proposal next week.”

6. Here’s the glass-half-full view on The Providence Journal’s 2013 revenue: the money brought in by the newspaper itself (from advertising and circulation sales) dropped 7% to $75 million, which was the smallest year-over-year decrease since 2007. On the other hand, it’s also less than half the $165 million that advertising and circulation brought in back in 2005. If you’re wondering why the paper is thinner these days, those numbers tell the tale. “The Projo’s results are largely in line with the overall industry, though still below the halfway mark,” media analyst Ken Doctor told me. In Doctor’s view, a crucial challenge for The Journal’s new owners – who could be selected by May – will be finding “the right formula to grow circulation revenue; other publishers have found that easier than turning around ad loss.” As for the bright spot in The Journal’s revenue picture – printing other newspapers, which now brings in $15 million – the next owners will have to look at how much physical capacity there is left to take on more outside contracts. Doctor also suggested they could look at emulating the Projo’s Dallas sister paper by building up a social and digital marketing business.

7. Speaking of The Journal, a fond farewell and best wishes to Phil Marcelo, who is leaving the paper’s vaunted State House Bureau to join The Associated Press in Boston. Like his colleagues Kathy Gregg and Randy Edgar, Phil has logged many late nights being the public’s eyes and ears at quietly consequential General Assembly hearings. It seems likely the paper will hire or promote someone to keep the bureau staffed with three people.

8. Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation had a notably bipartisan week. Jack Reed logged a major win by reaching a compromise with five Senate Republicans to extend jobless benefits, though it remains to be seen if the House GOP will go along … Sheldon Whitehouse got New York Times attention for his work with Texas Republican John Cornyn on prison sentencing (though his #Up4Climate speech-a-thon was labeled “a uniquely Washington combo of inspiration and cynicism” by Slate’s Dave Weigel) … and David Cicilline successfully amended a Republican bill to require a regular accounting of how much Congress spends suing the Obama administration over immigration enforcement.

9. The delegation’s other member, Jim Langevin, is perceived in some quarters as less liberal than he should be considering how safe a Democratic seat the 2nd District is - Betsy Dennigan, for instance, challenged Langevin from the left in 2010. But an intriguing new website suggests Langevin isn’t as out of step with his party and his seat as those like Dennigan think. The site – Primary Colors – uses an algorithm to point out which Democrats could and should be safely primaried by liberal activists. Langevin, it turns out, is right in step with the 2nd District – his voting record is slightly more progressive than the site’s algorithm would expect based on the seat’s fundamentals. (Side note: it would be fascinating to see a similar analysis of the General Assembly and its many heterodox Democrats.)

10. Allan Fung made another key hire this week, picking The Shawmut Group to be general consultant on his campaign for governor. Shawmut is, of course, best known for its close ties to Mitt Romney through the former Massachusetts governor’s longtime aides Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty. Shawmut also advised Scott Brown on his shock 2010 special election victory, as well as John Loughlin on his losing bid for Congress the following November. (Loughlin later told The Huffington Post he couldn’t recall the work Shawmut did for him.) Fung is taking a different approach from Brendan Doherty by dividing his big consulting work between Shawmut, pollster Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies, and a media consultant yet-to-be-named; Doherty used one firm – OnMessage – for all three.

11. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the Smithfield Democratic Town Committee endorsed Angel Taveras for governor (it’s Gina Raimondo’s hometown, but the committee chairman is Taveras’s new acting director of administrationLawrence Mancini) … the United Nurses & Allied Professionals (UNAP) endorsed Clay Pell … Senate Majority Whip (and Taveras deputy chief of staff) Maryellen Goodwin endorsed Mike Solomon for Providence mayor … the Smithfield Democrats also endorsed Guillaume de Ramel for secretary of state and Ernie Almonte for treasurer … Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena endorsed de Ramel, too … and the VoteVets.org PAC endorsed Jack Reed.

12. I’ll be on 89.7 FM WGBH’s recently expanded Under the Radar this Sunday at 6 p.m. Tune in!

13. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items we published this week: the FBI subpoenaed PEDP for records related to a 2009 loan … Gina Raimondo started unveiling her jobs plan, while Angel Taveras proposed a new training program … most of the candidates for governor oppose NECAP, which is here to stay through 2016 … and former Sen. Max Baucus paid touching tribute to the late John Chafee.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis, plus Ed Fitzpatrick and John Marion on “Sunshine Week” and open records in Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission’s Colin Kane and Jan Brodie. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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