Rhode Island casts economic net seaward in quest for prosperity

Rhode Island is turning to the sea in an effort to boost the state's floundering economy. Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy's recent announcement that the state will guarantee $5 million in tax-exempt bonds for the construction at Galilee of what will become the state's largest fish-processing plant is but one of a series of state incentives aimed at promoting marine-related businesses in the Ocean State.

The processing plant will be constructed for the 125-member Point Judith Fishermen's Cooperative.

Point Judith is New England's third-largest fishing port after Gloucester and New Bedford, both in Massachusetts.

This November, state planners say a $3 million bond issue will be on a statewide referendum ballot. If it is passed, half the money will go to support the construction of new docking and other fishing facilities at Newport. The other $1.5 million is expected to go toward improving bulkheads and docks on the east side of Galilee port.

In addition, state officials are considering longer-term plans to develop a new fishing port in the state. Among sites under consideration is Quonset Point, the former Navy facility.

The Point Judith fish-processing plant project, expected to cost a total of $ 7 million, will permit the cooperative's fishermen for the first time to processes up to one-third of the fish they catch. The remaining two-thirds will be sold fresh.

In years past the majority of the Rhode Island catch was shipped to points along the Atlantic Coast from Boston to Virginia for processing. That meant an extra transportation cost to the fishermen of 6 to 10 cents per pound of fish.

Charles Follett, president of the cooperative, says the modern facility will make possible faster offloading of the catch at dockside, enabling 50 percent more fishing boats to use the facility.

This will give fishermen a faster ''turnaround'' time, enabling them to head more quickly back out to sea to catch more fish.

''This will be the largest transaction related to the seafood industry ever in this state,'' says Karl Harig of the Fleet National Bank, which is financing the project.

There are approximately 700 commercial fishermen in Rhode Island. Last year they netted some 100 million pounds of fish, worth $66 million.

State officials note that while fishing comprises only a small percentage of Rhode Island's gross state product, it is one of the state's fastest growing industrial sectors. Employment in the fishing industry has risen from 2,500 jobs in 1978 to 8,300 jobs this year, they say.

Rhode Island has 400 miles of coastline, state economist John Ienna points out, and the ocean ''is our one natural resource.''

The state has been looking for ways to diversify its economy into new, growth industries.

At one time Rhode Island boasted a strong economy firmly rooted in manufacturing and textiles. Then the textile industry discovered the Sun Belt and the third world. Later, in the early 1970s, the US Navy moved out of its Quonset Point base, dealing another significant blow to the state economy.

An ambitious economic recovery plan put before Rhode Island voters in a June referendum, was defeated by a 4-to-1 vote. The idea was to pump $250 million into the state to stimulate another $750 million in private-sector investment. That, in turn, would create 60,000 new and higher-paying jobs. Among the targeted areas were marine high technology, marine research and development, and robotics.

State officials say that while the recovery plan may be dead, some of its features may be introduced as individual pieces of legislation next year.

Though fishing was slated to gain from the plan, state officials say the industry served more as a model for the innovative proposal than as a beneficiary of its provisions.

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