SBA visits Block Island
In recent years, Rhode Island has consistently been ranked poorly in terms of its small business environment.
A 2013 CNBC ranking, “America’s Top States for Business 2013,” placed Rhode Island at the bottom of the pile, with a ranking of 49. In December 2013, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council ranked the 50 states based on 47 different policy measures. Under the “Small Business Policy Index 2013,” Rhode Island ranked 40th.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), along with several local and state agencies, is striving to rectify this situation. The SBA held its annual Block Island Business District Walking Tour and Meeting on Wednesday, June 25. SBA lending and resource partners, state agencies and islanders alike met to brainstorm solutions to make the island a more competitive and robust small business center.
Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, Rhode Island Director of Tourism Mark Brodeur and Rhode Island District Director for the SBA Mark S. Hayward were in attendance, as were representatives from the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center, SCORE Association and the Center for Women & Enterprise. Multiple lending institutions and development companies, such as South Eastern Economic Development Corporation and Bank of America, were present and available for consultation. First Warden Kim Gaffett, Jessica Willi, Executive Director of the Tourism Council, and Kathy Szabo, Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, were also in attendance, among other representatives from island businesses.
According to a letter from Hayward, the annual tour provides the business community with “an opportunity to talk to industry, government and private sector leaders on issues that are important to you. We truly want to know what the needs of the island business community are and respond to those needs.”
The group started the day off with a bus tour of the island, after which a meeting was held at the 1661 Inn. Guest speakers offered insight into the current affairs of the island and of the state.
Roberts recalled fondly her first trip to Block Island, a lobster dinner with her family in 1978.
“One of the great things about Block Island is that it creates those memories,” Roberts said. She acknowledged that the current economic climate and the nature of island life present challenges, but that she and the rest of the group were ready to help.
Mollis echoed this sentiment.
“What can we do to make your life easier so that you can do what you do best, which is to provide great services?” Mollis asked.
He highlighted the endeavors that his office has undertaken throughout his term to accomplish this goal.
“A lot of the things we’ve done over the last seven and a half years have really helped Block Island,” Mollis said, noting the development of online business and commerce tools.
Mollis said that Block Island is a key part of Rhode Island’s economy and identity, even above and beyond tourism. His only problem with Rhode Island’s founding fathers, he joked, is that they made Providence the state capitol instead of Block Island.
Rhode Island Director of Tourism Mark Brodeur highlighted the new transportation opportunities available on the island, namely the introduction of Cape Air and the new ferry routes from Fall River and Newport, as well as the island’s charm.
One of his favorite lines when he’s “selling” Block Island, Brodeur said, is to tell people that the last hotel was built in the 1880s.
Block Island’s charm and marketability, Brodeur said, is that it’s not built up.
“It isn’t what it is, it’s what it’s not,” Brodeur said.
Jessica Willi, the director of the Block Island Tourism Council, spoke about the fine line between promoting economic growth and development while still maintaining the sense of peace, quiet and concern for nature that Brodeur talked about.
The key, Willi said, is in preserving the island’s “sense of place” while growing the shoulder seasons. Currently, the high season is the Fourth of July through Labor Day. Through promoting off-season packages, events and activities, Willi said, the council is hoping to expand the high season from Easter to Columbus Day.
Looming over all of these positive outlooks and hopes for the future, however, was the state’s tiny tourism budget. The median budget across the nation is $10 million per state; Rhode Island has only $350,000 per year to use towards marketing and promotion.
“We have the smallest budget in the country but we have such a great product, so that helps,” Brodeur said.
SBA district director Mark Hayward said that the SBA offers many resources for businesses, including grants, training and seminars, financing, webpage construction, e-marketing and bookkeeping instruction, and that several businesses on the island have taken advantage of these services in the past.
“This is a good day for the island,” Hayward said. “These people are serious about helping.”
This was evident when, after learning about the severity of electricity costs and bandwith issues on the island, several attendees offered their assistance. Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, for example, suggested that she schedule a meeting with the New England Verizon representative, to address the issue.
After the meeting, the group visited community businesses and talked with owners and employees to get a sense of how they might help.
Hayward said that, after talking with community business owners, it was clear that everyone was hoping for a more robust June.
A shop owner, who’s worked on the island for 20 years and asked to remain anonymous, said that the season is continually getting shorter. There’s no more June, she said, and she believes the state needs to spend more time and money on Block Island promotion.
“You don’t hear anyone talking about Block Island anymore,” she said. “ It’s a gorgeous island, so why isn’t anyone marketing it?”
“The state needs to take a more active role, “ Mollis said of the community’s desire for more promotion and perhaps a bigger budget. “It’s a worthwhile investment. It’s miniscule compared to our neighbors, but we have so much more to offer.”
Jim Ortell, the owner of Block Island Sport Shop, said that he appreciated the visit from the government officials and lenders. He spoke to them about the need for more bandwith, which he said they were all very receptive to.
“We’re like a third world country out here,” Ortell said, referring to the Internet problems.
Ortell said that the shop is in its 26th year and, while it’s been a slow June, he has a loyal customer base. He expressed admiration for Mollis, whose office has been very progressive in terms of online commerce and filing. He no longer has to send his annual report via mail. Instead, everything is now online.
“That’s the state of Rhode Island making it easier for me,” Ortell said.
John Cullen, a member of the Block Island Tourism Council who owns several businesses on the island, spoke highly of the SBA and its resources. Cullen said that he’s utilized several of them. Most notably, he said, SCORE assisted him with free legal counsel and consistently checked back in over time.
“If people choose to tap into those resources, it can be pretty valuable,” Cullen said.
“I think Block Island thinks we don’t know they’re here, but we do,” Lt. Governor Roberts said.