The rebranding of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) as the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation (RICC) is complete, and a complete dud. This is the government agency that’s supposed to get the state economy growing again to produce jobs – and buildings, and jobs for architects and builders. Just get a load of the new entity’s corporate logo, below. Can you make anything of it? No.
And yes, the RIEDC brand had become toxic, swimming in the quicksand of the 38 Studios imbroglio. (Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling, in retirement, after failing to lure private backing, got RIEDC to drop $75 million in taxpayer money on a computer game development company he had started, which immediately tanked – with the money, of course.)
I do not intend to single out the new RICC logo, although it is the Creative Capital (the silly rebranding of Providence by former Mayor David “Congressman” Cicilline) writ large. You can perhaps perceive an R amid the swooshes, but the abbreviation of the state of Rhode Island is not R but RI. So where’s the I? But if it’s not supposed to stand for Rhode Island, what is it supposed to stand for? What is the meaning? Isn’t the whole idea of a logo to communicate a brand, an idea … something?
That a brand, a logo, should convey something clearly to a broad audience is an idea that keeps company with the dodo, at least around here. The RICC rebranding folly has a lot of local company, and I’m afraid to say that RIEDC – excuse me, RICC – has its fingerprints on a lot of it.
The agency’s big baby is the Route 195 Redevelopment Commission, which has recently rebranded the 40 or so acres of land that used to be under the recently relocated interstate highway. The land is now supposed to be called “The LINK.” Huh? The operative word apparently is not an acronym and stands for nothing at all, except that the land connects vague entities together – the land to the water? the land to the land? the land to the jobs that will tumble forth once high tech from around the country, turning a blind eye to the state’s soggy business climate, discovers the Knowledge District and … but I am getting ahead of myself.
I mean, what is this “Knowledge District”? It’s stepping on the toes of the Jewelry District, an old and venerable name the harks back to when it was filled with factories. Now, thanks to rebranding, it looks down its nose at other neighborhoods of the city. Knowledge District indeed! It certainly does not qualify for that designation today. Will it someday? Maybe. Or maybe not. This is called counting your chickens before they’ve hatched.
After all, the 195 commission and the Knowledge District were, respectively, legislated and rebranded at least three years ago, with little to show so far. They’re still putting in the utilities and curbs and pavement, etc. If we are lucky, we’ll get some ugly campuses for institutions shifting jobs from other parts of the city and state to the Knowledge District, partly, I suspect, to score brownie points with the General Assembly and City Council, which might otherwise contemplate taxing certain tax-exempt institutions. If we are not lucky, we’ll get more parking lots. (We could turn it into beautiful places, and that might help lure development, but that makes too much sense.)
Brown already has planted some medical departments in the Jewelry District and a state nursing school may be in the offing. Can the 195 commission manage to turn the gorgeous neoclassical South Street Station (an old power plant built in 1913) into an eyesore? If the commission follows the lead of its supposed mentor, the Capital Center Commission, who can doubt it?
A couple of years ago, another rebranding plopped the goofy name of Iway on the actual relocated portion of Route 195, including but not limited to the big new bridge over the Providence River. Iway must surely be intended as a riff on the Rhode Island accent. Iway … huh? Oh, highway! Now I get it! Har, har! Some people with thin skins might not think it’s so funny. Other people are taking it in stride. The bridge itself should be renamed for the late William D. Warner.
Bill Warner was the architect/planner who redesigned the city’s waterfront with river walks, parks and new bridges by the dozen in an evocative traditional style that built on the historic beauty of the city and state. Beauty is one of the few strategic advantages Providence and Rhode Island have in the intergalactic fight for jobs. Warner respected beauty, but beauty is spurned by the “Creative Capital” types who (for a fee) pump out a fog of confusion, epitomized by the RICC logo and other rebrandings. This only creates difficulties for Rhode Island in the battle with other states and the world to bring and create new jobs here.
I’m sure there are good people doing good work at the RICC, but that does not mean that this mania for rebranding should get off scot free. What we need is not rebranding but rethinking, and most of the rethinking does not require rocket science – but it might require some bold politics in a city-state that long ago forgot how to really create, and can’t imagine what actual creativity is all about. Let’s hope the Knowledge District is up to the challenge. So far, the prognosis is not good.