Olon Reeder, a slight-figured, unassuming, behind-the-scenes kinda guy, has been quietly improving the quality of life in northern Rhode Island for decades as a public affair adviser for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
With his years of working in the public sector, as legislative assistant with the Rhode Island General Assembly in the mid-to-late 1970s, with the Garrahy administration, state agencies and with small businesses, he’s authored a nontraditional economic development policy paper he hopes will be considered in next year’s Rhode Island General Assembly debate as to how to create a more vibrant business environment in the Ocean State.
Over the years, Reeder, President of Reeder Associates, a Southern New England-based public relations and multi-media communications company, has seen state lawmakers and its economic development agency attempt to compete with surrounding states, just going after “larger, trendy, projects to turn the economy around. “Smaller companies would always get the short end of the stick, because they were not seen as a viable economic generator,” he says, stressing that this perception is inaccurate.
In recent years economic development solutions to fix the state’s ailing economy have been floated for public debate by lawmakers, economic development professionals or by large corporations. Today, Reeder, with almost 40 years of in the public and private sectors, calls on state lawmakers to consider his proposal when they focus on economic reform in next year’s session. More needs to be done, says the small businessperson who is a Native Rhode islander.
It’s almost like Mr. Reeder goes to Smith Hill, to take on the establishment to be heard.
“We are at a critical crossroads where we must overcome our negatives attitudes and start taking actions ourselves if we all want our state and our lives to become successful,” Reeder wrote in a recently-released policy statement detailing his suggested economic development action agenda, as how to improve the state’s long term quality of life, through investing in people, communities and small businesses.
He calls for tying lifelong education to grow the economy. “Brain power is a key element driving worldwide demands and economic activity today, through the convergence of non stop knowledge, creative economy, enterprise and innovation, art-design connections, which all start with lifelong learning,” he says.
He says personal empowerment creates the environment for change “Empowerment encourages, and develops the skills for, self-sufficiency, giving people the abilities and knowledge that will allow them to overcome obstacles in life or work environment and ultimately, help them develop within themselves or in the society,” he says.
Companies are constantly replacing full-time employees, he said, and now relying upon independent contractors, where people who once counted on a steady pay check are now being left to fend for themselves in a hyper-competitive self employed market. These individuals are oftentimes forgotten by policy makers.
Based on 2011 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Rhode Island, there re over 73 thousand self employed contributing over $3 billion annually to the state’s economy. Most self employed are hired out of necessity, are done so locally and through word of mouth. Because freelancers depend so much on self promotion to get their jobs, they must focus on the local markets, along with showcasing their diverse personal talents, marketing their skills to business owners in their community, along trying to compete with others for opportunities.
Reeder recognizes the importance of valuing our places, spaces and communities, to grow business. “More than ever, people must be connected to where we live, work, play, stay and travel. People expect places and spaces they interact with daily to be vibrant, active, socially appealing, culturally stimulating and help them in improving their quality of life, especially with their physical and mental health,” he says.
Reeder notes active living communities provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to engage in routine daily physical activity, he says, like pedestrian and bicycle friendly design, access to intermodal transportation, mixed use development, ample recreation, walkable neighborhoods, access to fresh and healthy foods and commerce centers. This philosophy must be included in any state economic development plan.
“Our economic revitalization is relevant to healthy and sustainable communities because active living communities encourage individuals to be more physically active, improving health by lowering citizens’ risk for health conditions, adds Reeder. “Active living communities create enhance quality of life, attract business and knowledge workers, and contribute to ongoing economic development,” he says.
Reeder stresses that technology is a must, as people are now “required” to have 24/7 365 access to the Internet and must now communicate through social media to live, work, and transact personal activity, he calls for providing everyone with free online access “as a necessity of our 21st century lifestyles.”
Finally, Reeder thinks “Demand Driven Experiences” are necessary for not only reinventing our state’s manufacturing, but in changing our self attitudes about how Rhode Islanders see themselves, ultimately affecting expectations others may have about the perception of Rhode Island as the worst place for business.
“Because people no longer buy things for their personal benefit, they want enhancements to fulfill missing elements of their lives,” adds Reeder, noting that experiences are crucial for businesses and locations as a branding and marketing tool, especially with efforts in Rhode Island attracting people to live and travel here for our entertainment, food and lifestyles.”
“Using our experiences to effectively promote market and give an iconic brand, we must also stay true to the “real Rhode Island,” to our proud independent and working class heritage, the ethnic and cultural diversity in our state, and preserving our unique natural resources,” he says.
State lawmakers are moving in the right direction to make Rhode Island a more business-friendly place to operate. Reeder continues his efforts to get his voice heard by General Assembly leadership, state policy makers, business groups, even gubernatorial candidates. Hopefully, they will choose to closely listen to Reeder’s nontraditional approach to economic development and to small business owners who know their specific needs to operate successfully.