The Block Island Times

Chamber looks at concerns facing island businesses

By Stephanie Turaj | Sep 22, 2013
Photo by: John Cullen An example of trash barrels on the island that are overflowing. Inadequate tourism services, including garbage disposal, is one of the top three concerns of island businesses.

Electric rates.

Inadequate internet service.

Lack of tourist services.

These are the three top concerns of island businesses according to a recent survey conducted by the Block Island Chamber of Commerce.

Now that the results are in, the chamber plans to form subcommittees comprised of its members, with the goal of giving the island business community a stronger voice in addressing these issues.

“The business community has got to have a voice,” said chamber member Fraser Lang, who served on the subcommittee that created the poll and presented its results to the chamber at its Sept. 17 meeting. The polls asked island business owners to rank the priority of 16 challenges facing Block Island businesses.

The 16 categories were: high electric rates; inadequate Internet service; ferry freight rates; auto and passenger rates; inadequate parking downtown; lack of tourist services (trash barrels, toilets, showers); overregulation by state and local governments; anti-business climate in the broader community; water/sewer rates; lack of services for boaters; the dilapidated beach pavilion; appearance of downtown to visitors; lack of employee housing; inadequate representation for the business community at the state and local level; town government and its business related services; infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, streetlights and bike paths); and poor coordination of Amtrak and Block Island Express schedules.

Of these categories, 30 people ranked electricity as their top concern, 23 people ranked internet service as a top concern, and 16 people ranked inadequate tourist amenities (such as adequate trash barrels) as a top concern. Other areas that were highly-ranked include ferry freight rates, lack of employee housing and a dilapidated beach pavilion.

The survey was emailed to about 200 members of the Chamber of Commerce, and 44 people responded. It was only available to chamber members, all of whom are island business owners. At the Sept. 17 chamber meeting, only about half of the attendees had filled out the survey. Some commented that they would have filled it out, but did not see it in time, and there was discussion about possibly re-issuing the survey.

Lang said the goal was to begin making progress on the poll’s results even if the survey was to be re-issued. He turned his presentation over to Chamber President Mary Lawless, who asked for volunteers to serve on three committees that will address the top three concerns; Lang noted that the other concerns might also be addressed later.

“This is not the venue for this,” said Chamber member Bruce Montgomery, who attended the meeting. “The proper venue is the Town Council.”

Lang responded that the goal of the committees is to do just that: bring more voice from the business community to the town government.

But when Lawless began asking for volunteers to serve on each committee, volunteers were not forthcoming. Lang and Lawless were the only ones to agree to serve on the electricity committee. A few more stepped up for the internet and tourism committees. Chamber member Bill Penn, who sits on several town boards, including the Electric Utilities Task Group (EUTG) and Block Island Residents Association (which has an Internet subcommittee), volunteered to be the liaison with those boards.

Some of the meeting’s attendees had questions about how the chamber committees would interact with other groups, such as the aforementioned EUTG. Lang suggested that the committees look at what these other groups are doing — a sort of fact-finding mission — and then develop appropriate courses of action. The committees would give an update of their progress at each monthly chamber meeting.

Chamber member Becky Clark said that the chamber should also have a presence at council meetings, such as a spokesperson. Penn also noted that the committees should look at Town Council agendas for items related to the three areas of concern. For example, he said that on the Wednesday, Sept. 18, council meeting agenda there were several items related to electricity.

Penn also commented that the issues of electric rates and internet service would be fixed if the proposed Deepwater Wind project is installed.

“We’re trying to find a fix between now and then,” responded member Lucinda Morrison. “Especially the internet, because it’s so bad for businesses.”

In addition, the poll also accepted comments from participants. There were 13 comments received, and they included complaints about the island’s ferry service, a comment about island “overreaction” to Lyme disease and comments about a need for reform of the power company.

One comment said: “I just believe that tourism is an important part of Block Island and yet it is not supported by our town government in a way that it should be. Very basic issues — trash and bathrooms, for example, reflect poorly on the island and yet no one seems to be able to solve them.”

Another comment said: “Assisting the smaller businesses with providing housing for their employees is the number one concern. It prohibits them from hiring quality employees and thus offering quality services. It is also exceptionally costly to local businesses as it’s often subsidized. A large dormitory style housing unit where small businesses could rent rooms to house their staff would be ideal, given the building was monitored and kept in shape.”

One last comment said: “I am pretty happy — this place is fabulous as far as I’m concerned.”

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