Rhode Island's Top Ten Stories Of 2013

Dec 23, 2013

It’s that time of the year when Rhode Island Public Radio counts down the top stories of the year. Each day we’ll update this page so you can follow along with our countdown. (Let us know what you think of how we ranked the top stories on Twitter @rinpr)

Number 10: The 2014 Governor’s Race

Primaries to pick the final Democratic and Republican candidates won’t be held until next September. A field of expected candidates nonetheless stayed busy in 2013 by raising money, seeking support, and elevating their profiles.

Moderate Party of Rhode Islander founder Ken Block was the first to announce a run for governor as a Republican this time. Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, also jumped into the race.

On the Democratic side, state treasurer Gina Raimondo set the pace by raising more than $2 million and has announced in holiday video that she will run. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras lags behind in the money race, although polls show him as the best-liked politician in Rhode Island. Adding to the intrigue is a possible Democratic run by Clay Pell, the grandson of the late Senator Claiborne Pell.

Number 9: The Struggling Economy

The Rhode Island Association of Realtors says 2013 was the best year for real estate in the state since 2006.  In every month except one, median prices and sales activity increased, sometimes by double digits. The median price of a single family home went from $175,000 in January to $204,000 in October.

Unemployment was another story.  2013 was the first time in four years the state’s jobless rate dipped below double digits, but not by much.  The state ends the year with a jobless rate over nine percent, one of the highest in the country. By contrast, the national unemployment rate is seven percent.

2013 was also the year the state’s tallest building went dark. Bank of America vacated the so-called ‘Superman’ building in April. The owner of the property, High Rock Development, unsuccessfully petitioned the legislature for $39 million dollars in historic tax credits to turn the 26-story Art Deco building into a mix of residential and retail use. A spokesman for the owner says they’ll return to the General Assembly in January to try again.

Number 8: Blizzard Blankets Rhode Island

Classes were cancelled and grocery stores were emptied as the storm approached. And when after it passed through Rhode Islanders woke up to a state blanketed in one to two feet of snow. It also packed hurricane-force winds with gusts clocked on the Newport Pell Bridge at 90-miles-per-hour. 

The blizzard kept planes out of the sky, trains off the rails and cars off the roads with a state-wide driving ban was in effect for much of the next day as snow plows worked to clear the roads.

At the height of the storm, National Grid reported some 187,000 customers without power, days later thousands of residents remained without power.  

Number 7: Landmark Hospital Inches Closer to a Buyer

The struggling Woonsocket hospital went into receivership in 2008 and spent the next few years searching for a buyer. Several names appeared on Landmark’s dance card but none stuck around for the dance until Prime Healthcare.

The for-profit California hospital chain won state approval by year’s end to buy Landmark. That makes Landmark Rhode Island’s first for-profit hospital.

Doctors and employees hope the influx of cash from Prime can help modernize its facilities and preserve jobs. Landmark’s community is relieved they won’t have to travel out of Woonsocket for care, especially for emergencies.

Number 6: Tug-of-war Over Sakonnet River Bridge Tolls

The Sakonnet River Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in Rhode Island. To raise money for its upkeep, and the maintenance of other bridges in the state, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority voted to collect tolls ranging from $.75 to $5.25.

After public outcry, mainly from East Bay residents, lawmakers put a freeze on those tolls and then turned around and put a ten-cent toll on the bridge. That toll is a placeholder until a legislative commission comes up with a toll plan for the Sakonnet Bridge. If there’s no plan by April 1st, the Authority says it will regain control over setting the toll.

Number 5: Boston Marathon Bombings Change Lives in Rhode Island

The Boston Marathon bombing in April left three dead and more than 260 injured.  And it turned out to be a life-altering event for two Rhode Island women.

Heather Abbott of Newport was waiting to get into a bar near the finish line of the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded near her.  Her left leg was so badly damaged she elected to have it amputated.   Now, eight months after the bombing, she has several prosthetic legs and has returned to work.  

The Boston Marathon bombing also had a lasting effect on Katherine Russell of North Kingstown. The 24-year-old was married to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brother bombers. He was killed by police but his widow didn’t have much time to grieve.  Police immediately questioned her about how her husband had assembled two pressure cooker bombs in their small apartment without her knowing about it.

Russell, who dropped her married name after the bombing, lives with her parents in Rhode Island. She has never spoken publicly about the bombing and her attorneys have guarded her closely.

Number 4: Owner Puts The Providence Journal up for Sale

Dallas-based A.H. Belo bought the ProJo and its nine television stations for $1.5 billion in 1997. Newspaper profit margins were still robust in the 90’s, and the Internet had yet to emerge as a force.

But before long the Internet destroyed the traditional model for newspaper advertising, replacing, as the saying goes, print dollars with digital dimes. Like newspaper publishers elsewhere, Belo responded by reducing its workforce through a series of buyouts and layoffs. The company announced earlier this month it was putting the ProJo up for sale.

The Providence Journal remains the largest news organization in Rhode Island. The thinking is that the paper may sell next year for somewhere around $20 million to $45 million.

Number 3: Rhode Island Launches Insurance Exchange HealthSource RI

Obamacare stayed in the spotlight for much of 2013, especially when the federal online health insurance marketplace launched in October. But Rhode Island was one of 14 states that built their own marketplaces, and ours went live with few glitches. There was some initial trouble communicating with the federal site, but HealthSource RI found workarounds and continued enrolling individuals, families, and small businesses in 28 different health insurance plans.

The site checks whether you’re eligible for Medicaid or for federal subsidies to offset the cost of a plan. Fewer than expected have enrolled so far, calling into question HealthSource RI’s ability to rein in the cost of premiums.

Number 2: Gov. Chafee Switches Parties, Ditches Re-election Plans

Chafee switched his party affiliation from independent to Democrat in May. Some observers called the move an opportunistic step toward re-election. Chafee denied that and said his political views lined up with those of the Democratic Party.

As the son of former governor and Senator John Chafee, Lincoln Chafee was raised as part of a prominent moderate Republican family. The younger Chafee left the GOP in 2007, one year after a backlash against then-President George W. Bush cost Chafee his seat in the US Senate.

Chafee has wrestled with low approval ratings since narrowly winning the governor’s office in a four-way race in 2010. Yet it still came as a surprise when Chafee announced in September he wouldn’t seek re-election. He explained the move by saying he didn’t want the distraction of a campaign in his remaining time in office.

Number 1: Rhode Island Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

It took 16 years of lobbying, but in May the Rhode Island General Assembly finally caught up with its neighboring states and legalized same-sex marriage. It was the 10th state to do so.   All five Republicans in the state senate supported the bill.  It replaced civil unions, which had been legalized two years earlier.

The most vocal critic was Providence Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, who called homosexual acts “sinful.”  But he was unable to overcome the clout of House Speaker Gordon Fox, an openly gay lawmaker who pushed the bill through the legislative pipeline.

The state health department said there’s no way of knowing how many same-sex couples have tied the knot since it became legal August 1st.