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Yes, folks, it is better to be safe than sorry, but still...

April 8, 2013

By JIM BARON - As it turned out, there was no gunman. There was no gun. Nobody had even said the word gun until the panic had already started, for Pete’s sake.
Nonetheless, the state university cancelled classes for the day. Students were in lockdown all across the campus for several hours. Frightened parents punched the numbers on their cell phones, frantically trying to contact their student offspring. The university’s website crashed from the sheer numbers of people trying to log on to find out what the heck was happening.
Police officers from communities all across South County dropped everything and sped to the University of Rhode Island campus, meeting State Troopers and detectives who were already there working with campus police to assess the situation.
Newspaper reporters, radio and TV journalists and even bloggers did a 21st Century version of “Stop the Presses!” and immediately diverted all their attention to the university’s Chafee Hall, where somebody heard something that sounded like someone saying he had a gun. You could tell which building it was – it was the one with the news helicopters flying above it.
Students stampeded out of their classrooms – the only injuries that were sustained were the cuts, scrapes and bruises from the rush out of the building where somebody banged on a classroom door and shouted something that nobody really heard correctly.
But there was no gunman, there wasn’t even a gun, and nobody had even said the word gun until the panic had already started.
We’re going to have to do better than this, people.
If it turns out this whole incident was sparked by a game of Zombies vs. Humans, Rhode Island is going to look really stupid for reasons not related to the extent of its business friendliness.
I know, I know, I know it is better to be safe than sorry, but still…
We can’t have everybody losing their…composure anytime the word gun is mentioned, or if somebody thinks that’s what they heard.
“When someone rings a bell, we respond,” State Police Col. Stephen O’Donnell told the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. “All of us would rather respond and have nothing happen than have a late response or inappropriate response if something did happen.”
That is understandable, but it probably means that, over time, you are going to have a lot of people ringing bells. Some are going to do it for their own twisted amusement, watching people run around like their hair was on fire in reaction to a stupid prank. Some are going to do it for ulterior motives – not prepared for that big exam? Gee, maaaaaybe if someone said they saw a gun… And every once in a while you are going to have a real bad guy or a real nut with a real gun really shooting people.
So what should we do? Heck, I don’t know, I’m just a guy who writes for a newspaper. But we need to do something that doesn’t look like the scene that unfolded at URI last Thursday. There must be some middle ground between panicking over nothing and dismissing real danger. This is going to keep ad hoc committees busy for months.

*****
Did we really learn nothing from the 38 Studios fiasco? Are we really preparing the ground to make the same mistake all over again?
Gov. Lincoln Chafee and others think it is time to rejuvenate the Historic Structures Tax Credit program. And it probably is. The historic tax credits were a wildly successful idea that led to some incredibly successful projects. Old mills in danger of dilapidating or breaking out in spectacular fires whose photos would light Page One of newspapers across the state were turned into beautiful apartment complexes and sumptuous office space.
The tax credits were so popular and so successful that after just a few years, they started to break the bank and the state had to pull the plug on them if it was going to have enough revenue to run the government.
Likewise, the Economic Development Corporation’s small business loan program was an excellent idea. If the program had doled out $1 million, $2 million or even $10 million loans to businesses trying to make a go of it in the Ocean State, the EDC would be a nationwide success story today, trumpeted by business groups and publications across the country. They would be the Gina Raimondo of state development agencies and Keith Stokes would still have a job.
The problem is, they stupidly put all their eggs — $75 million out of a total of $125 million — in Curt Schilling’s undercapitalized basket and the rest is Rhode Island history. A perfectly good idea – the loan program – went so sour so fast that we are now in the process of changing the name of the EDC to try to shake off the embarrassment.
The same thing is going to happen to the laudable historic tax credits program if we blow all the money that is available to it on the so-called Superman building in downtown Providence.
The company who bought the building – a private-sector, profit-seeking enterprise – did so near the height of the real estate bubble and they overpaid for it. Now it is vacant and that company is scrambling to find a way to preserve its investment. Too bad, but that’s capitalism for ya.
Instead of selling the building at a massive financial loss, the owners want Rhode Island taxpayers to pony up more than $40 million in historic tax credits for a risky scheme to convert the building into residential apartments. Is this sounding familiar at all? If the CEO of High Rock Development starts bleeding into his sock, are we going to stake his chancy venture to the tune of $40 million?
Let’s hope not.
I understand Providence Mayor Angel Taveras wants to do something to keep this dowontown landmark in operation, but is he willing to risk the 2014 governor’s race if this project goes in the toilet like 38 Studios did?
*****
The news that Jay Leno is being dumped as host of The Tonight Show in favor of Jimmy Fallon is deeply depressing.
Not that I am a big fan of Leno’s; I actually prefer David Letterman to Leno, and Jon Stewart is funnier than both of them put together. But the unseating of Leno from behind the storied Tonight Show desk by that whippersnapper Fallon is one more sign that Baby Boomers – talkin’ ‘bout my generation – are being eclipsed by Generation X and Generation Y and Millennials.
For as long as we have lived, the world has been the Baby Boomer’s oyster. Our every need, want, desire and whim has been lavishly catered to. Now, like Leno, we are just old and in the way, nothing more than a “less than desirable demographic” to be neglected if not outright disparaged.
The only way television reaches out to Baby Boomers anymore is with those seemingly endless commercials for reverse mortgages and prostate medication. Even the Fonz – the Fonz, for heaven’s sake! – is shilling for reverse mortgage schemes. Are these the depths to which we have plunged?
Now new generations are being served – digitally dependent pip-squeaks with a perverse fascination for vampires and zombies. This is who is taking over? Really?
Well, that is the rant for this week. Now all you kids get off of my lawn!

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