The tone was upbeat and idea-oriented as Providence Mayor David Cicilline sat down with several Newport business owners at 22 Bowen's Wine Bar & Grille Wednesday night. Cicilline, in his bid for the U.S. Congressional seat Rep. Patrick Kennedy is leaving, chose to approach the meeting more like a brainstorming session. He started by presenting some of the ideas he'd like to take to the floor of Congress, and then asked for a round table discussion of ideas from the business owners.
The event was one of several Newport stops for Cicilline's campaign so far. Meanwhile, one of his opponents in the race for Congress, Rep. David Segal (D-Providence), was down the road at the Portsmouth wind turbine Wednesday to promote his plans for a "Green New Deal" in Rhode Island.
In Newport, Cicilline suggested that two projects he helped institute in Providence might translate well to cities like this one. The first was a targeted plan to identify, develop and support neighborhood markets, a program that includes financial support.
"We're investing in that every year," Cicilline said.
He also mentioned that to counter the recent credit squeeze hurting even businesses with very clean credit, "we capitalized a $10 million loan program." Cicilline also saw the need for a cabinet-level position for Art, Culture and Tourism and spoke of the large return on investment in the bureau he instituted in Providence.
When Cicilline mentioned the fact that many in government don't take the tourism industry "seriously," instead thinking of it as an "add-on," members of the round table discussion agreed.
"The state and city have never embraced tourism," said Stephen Coyne, Newport City Councilman and owner of Active Sole and Terra Zapato, who organized the meeting. "It's always been a second class citizen."
On a national level, where he hopes to have an impact, Cicilline pointed out that recently "the dollar was so weak, we should have seen a huge spike in international travel."
"Instead, we saw a decline," he noted.
The reason for this, he posited, was that for international travelers, "the visitor experience is less than welcome," at border entry points. Cicilline said he's recommended that National Security personnel at border points be required to "hand the passport back and say 'welcome to the U.S.' instead of throw it at them."
Among the minor grumblings from business owners were some familiar ones, like Newport's morass of regulations around signage, with Attorney Gregory F. Fater, co-owner of the Newport Gulls and O'Brien's Pub, adding "zoning and licensing" to the list of unfavorable regulations. Steve Cundy, proprietor of Tropical Gangsters on Thames Street and head of the Lower Thames Business Association, and Pieter N. Roos, Executive Director of the Newport Restoration Foundation and Secretary of the Board for the Newport & Bristol County Convention and Visitors Bureau, pressed for action on the ongoing issue of the unsightly above-ground wires on Lower Thames Street.
The discussion expanded as Coyne, Cundy, and Roos advocated for more aggressive development of the Lower Thames district. Coyne said the area is "important to the history" that Newport embodies as well as acting as the "gateway to Ocean Drive."
"Many of (the businesses) want to bootstrap themselves and make Lower Thames a better place," added Roos. "It's got so much potential."
All this led to Cicilline's discussion about the pitiful state of infrastructure across the country, which, he said, is increasingly becoming a public safety issue.
There was some discussion, initiated by Patricia Vecchione, owner of Designer Jewelry at 3 Christie's Landing, about renovations of the old Lobster Company on Bowen's Wharf. She suggested creating "new things for tourists to come and see inside of the lobster company." One of her ideas was to turn it into a hatchery, bringing in lobster tanks and perhaps inviting research from URI, to which Cicilline suggested some sort of collaboration with the university.
Another much-discussed issue was how to maximize the tourist dollars coming in from cruise ships. Vecchione complained that when cruise ship tourists come in, "they go to the Brick Market and get back on the boat and think they've seen Newport." But Lisa Harrison, owner of Long Wharf's Only in Rhode Island store, countered that she was seeing the increased traffic from the tours and that, in fact, it accounts for 25 percent of her business.
A few exchanges ensued about the fact that patrons of cruise ships tend to be older or don't want to do a lot of walking, and how multiple debarkations aren't an option, because as Karen Oakley of Viking Tours, also Vice-Chair of the Board of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, pointed out, "due to National Security, they have to come into a designated area." Cicilline then suggested offering some kind of shuttle service. At that, Oakley piped up with "the Trolley!"
Health insurance and taxation laws came up as having little to offer very small businesses such as those represented in the room. Oakley suggested there be another set of accommodations for a category she wanted called "micro-business."
When Roos tossed out, "How many people here have 50 employees?" (referring to the regulatory cut-off point defining small businesses) the response, besides no one raising their hands, was laughter. There were even complaints about the Providence weather reports.
"One word from those guys and we get zero business," Harrison said.
When asked, can a mayor from up north in Providence be in touch with the concerns of the Newport community, Cicilline responded, "The question for voters is who will go to Washington and fight hard and deliver results?"
As for this group of Newport business owners, they seemed to think Cicilline is showing good potential so far. They were especially happy that he promised them a direct e-mail line, inviting them to contact him personally with their issues or ideas.
"It was good," Harrison said. "Enthusiasm's a good thing."