Newport, RI – With war and Iraq and the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are new markets for business. An estimated 700 businesses, civic, and higher education leaders gathered for a business conference on Homeland Security in Newport Monday. Top defense officials said they are impressed with what Rhode Island has to offer.
The Raytheon Company is one of several hundred businesses that took part in the Homeland Security conference. As one of the larger contractors in the defense industry, Raytheon doesn't need a business expo to get the attention of the Department of Defense. But Vice President for Business Development, Steven Temple, said Raytheon is looking for new business relationships as it develops products for Homeland Security.
We've had quite a few people coming by the booth that aren't necessarily customers, but potential partners. So that's a good opportunity to work through how we might solve some of these problems.
One of those partners is 21st Century Systems, a software company that has focused on defense emergency response plans. Jeffrey Hicks is 21st Century System's vice president, Now transitioning to homeland defense, we're looking in areas for port security, container security for the large container ships, and hospital management, where they've had either a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
Hicks spent much of the day fielding questions from participants at the conference.
It's extremely helpful. We've had a number of people stop by today wondering about, Can you apply this technology to a new area, to something you haven't done before?' And it's really getting them the thought. We need that initial discussion to find out what their problem is, so that we can apply the technology to their problem.
Hicks does not currently have an office in Rhode Island, but expects to move eight to 12 employees, about a third of his workforce, to Portsmouth in the next few months. He said Rhode Island has a good network of defense companies, customers, and a supportive congressional delegation. A draft University of Rhode Island study found that the defense industry has a payroll of just over a billion dollars and employs about 17,00 Rhode Islanders. Defense leaders say Rhode Island's competitive edge is in maritime products and services. Contracts from the new Homeland Security Department are expected to go initially to defense industry players with a proven track record. In Rhode Island, that would include Raytheon, Electric Boat, Textron, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.
Cheryl Watkins Snead is president of Banneker Industries in Lincoln, another small business that contracts with Raytheon.
(A contract from the government) then trickles into the small business community, because those key facilities need to be supported, whether it's by subcontractors or service providers that are local.
Snead said, There's a tremendous opportunity to bring defense dollars back into the New England area that disappeared about 10 years ago.
Businesses pitching their products and ideas heard an enthusiastic response from top Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security officials.
Rhode Island is at the forefront of homeland defense technology, said Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale.
McHale said he came to the expo as a courtesy to Senator Reed and other organizers, but later amended that statement:
In fact I wasn't providing a courtesy to anyone, they were providing an educational experience to me. And I'm going to go back to Washington with a much better idea of the tremendous corporate capabilities that are located within this state.
Of the 800-million dollars allotted for Homeland Security science and technology this year, about 100-million is for research and development. Brown University and other Rhode Island institutions were also at the conference to talk about their work on bio-sensors, bio-hazard detection and surveillance policy implications. Brown's Vice President for Research, Andy Van Dam, said the government isn't putting enough money into the basic sciences, and he worries about the balance between security and academic interests.
There's going to be enormous tension between the research agenda for Homeland Security and Defense, but at the same time, also protecting the University's basic right to open inquiry, to freedom of publication, to being able to engage foreign nationals in the course of research.
While the federal government develops this new industry for detecting weapons in the hulls of ships or crisis management software, the advice to households in Rhode Island and across the country is stock up on batteries, water and non-perishable foods, about three days worth.
Rhode Island National Guard General Reginald Centracchio said the state is ready to handle any disasters, including terrorist attacks. Centracchio said he's no more worried now about having to
activate that plan than he was before attacks on Iraq began last week.
There's always the possibility, and that possibility will probably be with us for several generations. The probability is what we deal with. The probability is very unpredictable. I don't anticipate that we're going to see anything because of Iraqi freedom. It means that we still have to be prepared and make sure that we can deal with whatever is presented to us.
Although the cost of the war and increased spending on Homeland Security may boost defense related industries in Rhode Island, Human Service Agencies are worried. They say the new federal budget will devastate many health care, child care, and education programs.