As executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation in the worst economy since the Great Depression, Keith Stokes has his work cut out for him. Once criticized by Lincoln Chafee for his support of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios project, Stokes is now the governor’s right-hand man. But he’s no showboat.
Keith Stokes is one of Rhode Island’s most influential people, but no one would call him a party animal. On first meeting the woman who would become his wife, he expounded on a historic cemetery; on family vacations, he dragged his four children into archives and museums. His idea of a big weekend is to hit an arts festival.
Yet this is a man who has a say in making other people’s dreams come true. As a board member of the Rhode Island Foundation and of the Slater Technology Fund, he can sign off on grants to fund a public sculpture or seed a start-up company. And as executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC), he influences a powerful state agency that can give businesspeople hundreds of thousands in grant money and loans worth millions.
Stokes’ role as EDC director has made him a highly visible figure. Governor Lincoln Chafee often appears in public with Stokes at his side to defend his budget and tax policies. The post has made the Newport resident something of a lightning rod: Directing economic policy in a state lagging behind a nation that’s enduring the worst economy in eighty years can be a thankless endeavor.
“He’s got a tough job, but I think he’s up for the task,” says Mark Higgins, dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business Administration. “I’m very impressed with Keith. I just think he understands all of the players that are involved in making things work.”
Stokes accepted the job as executive director of the EDC in early 2010, a tumultuous time in the agency’s history. A group of business, political and union leaders had recently published a frank criticism of the EDC, calling it “fragmented, disjointed and without focus.”
An Arizona businesswoman named Ioanna Morfessis had just been nominated for the job of reforming the agency but rejected it — and a proposed salary of $250,000 a year — for family reasons.
Stokes, who has sat on the EDC’s board since 1995, agreed last year to serve as executive director for $185,000 — far less than what Morfessis was offered, but still four times the annual average wage in Rhode Island. His first year as director did not expire without controversy. During the gubernatorial campaign, candidate Chafee harshly criticized the EDC’s decision to guarantee $75 million worth of bonds to a video game start-up company called 38 Studios, headed by retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. If that start-up venture should fail, Rhode Island taxpayers would be on the hook for $75 million, a risk that candidate Chafee found too daring. PolitiFact Rhode Island also challenged Stokes’ claim to a television station that video gaming is a growth industry, finding it to be “barely true.”
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