Survey stirs business concernsAction needed, Chamber members say
The annual joint meeting of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Council convened on Oct. 1 at the Spring House Hotel to review their work over the past year. Addressing an audience of approximately 50 community members, speakers from both groups described a number of projects and efforts designed to improve business on the island.
However, a survey recently completed by members of the Chamber on issues of concern was also distributed to the crowd, and a series of comments included in the survey offered a sometimes harsh assessment of the business climate on the island.
Among the 19 comments were:
“There is a sense of conflict with the Chamber Director when representing her business at Town meetings as it conflicts with the opinions of the island’s tourist-related businesses — whom she should be representing. Businesses need unified and uniformed representation... we have no voice. The Chamber staff are great, the director is not.”
(Reached after the meeting, Chamber Executive Director Kathy Szabo had no comment on this statement.)
“Reiterate the anti-business environment B.I. propagates and the lack of business representation — i.e. Chamber of Commerce.”
“I think that [the] town is looking horrible with businesses spewing their wares onto the sidewalks and street; it is out of control.”
“Substandard and not-inspected housing for foreign workers, mostly students.”
“Need more police visibility around the corner and across the intersection from the bars, when they close, the people leaving the bars, start hollering loudly, being obnoxious & vulgar language, waking all the sleeping children, and adults in hotels in town.”
“Our First Warden and Town Manager are anti-business and anti-tourist. This is reflected in the poor maintenance of the town beach pavilion, town bathrooms and garbage cans... there is nobody directing vehicular traffic and pedestrians as the boats arrive... They do not put pressure on the building official to enforce our historic district codes regarding signage and as a result our downtown looks seedy.”
“I feel as though we are being overrun by ferries.”
“Bike paths need to be addressed... The number of cars and riders on the roads are very dangerous.”
As a result, the Chamber has organized subcommittees that it hopes will address the top areas of concern for island businesses.
Islanders’ response to survey items
After the meeting, several of the complaints listed on the survey gave pause to some of those in attendance.
To Steve Filippi, Tourism Council member and co-owner of Ballard’s Inn, it was “obvious that everyone’s [the Tourism Council and the Chamber] on the same page.” He was pleased, he said, by the initiatives being taken to “create these pro-active groups [the committees].” He hoped these efforts would “lead to an effective 2014 season.”
He said, “My chief concerns are the dilapidated beach pavilion, trash in town and unkempt bathrooms at the Welcome Center.” Believing the island needed to put its best face forward to visitors, he hoped these issues would be brought to the attention of the Town Council.
Responding to the high cost of electric utilities, Anna Papa, co-owner of Aldo’s Restaurant [and, with her husband Steve, Papa’s Pizza] felt it was “very expensive to live on Block Island.” However, she added, “The survey was a great idea because it’s a way to call people’s attention to what needs to be done.”
Her daughter Christina Leone agreed, suggesting a conversation on these needs had already been started by visitors. She said, “Customers coming into the restaurant in September were telling us how frustrated they were when they went to the beach and found the pavilion closed — with no bathrooms or showers” available.
The frustration of these tourists plainly troubled the two women, who were puzzled by the mixed signals being given tourists. Papa noted, “We had beautiful weather this month and people wanted to go to the beach. I don’t know. You want off-season traffic but don’t provide the services.”
Infrequent trash pick-up was another concern, they felt. Around town, they pointed out, trash often overflows its containers, sending Anna out to “pick it up off the street.” “Yes,” Kristina said, “and people often comment how good you are to do that.”
“It’s there,” Papa explained matter-of-factly; “You have to pick it up.”
Reached after the meeting, Ben Wohl, owner with his wife, Toube, of the Gothic Inn and the Block Island General Store, said he would rearrange the priorities while still maintaining high electricity rates in the number one position. He would substitute tourism services for inadequate internet services as the second most serious need and add increased freight costs recently imposed by Interstate Navigation to the third slot.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Wohl said. “Interstate does a terrific job at providing clean accommodations, regular schedules and good ferry service, but I think they need an adjustment of fees.” Instead of raising the cost of freight affecting every business on the island, Wohl suggested they might have raised rates on those visitors — “often cottagers, who only use the ferry just a few times a year.”
He added, “Personally, I think their rates should go up,” whereas he thought they might be held or dropped for islanders. Wohl also took issue with Interstate’s interpretation of who an “islander” was, noting that determination seemed to hinge on whether an individual was or was not on island during February.
Finally, Wohl said he believed that Interstate should consult with “or at least listen to” island residents before making changes to the rate structure.
Spring House Hotel owner Frank DiBiase expressed complete disbelief in the ability of a survey or yet another series of committees to effect any real changes on island. The problems identified recently were merely echoes, he felt, of similar concerns from over a quarter century ago. “Just look back at old editions of The Block Island Times,” he said. “The stories were about the costs of electricity and the deer then, just as they are now.”
DiBiase then asked a question that was on the minds of some other survey respondents: “Now what do we do about it?”
During the joint meeting held on Oct. 1, Mary Lawless and Szabo of the Chamber, and President of the Tourism Council Zena Clark and its Executive Director Jessica Willi, elaborated on the respective roles of the two groups.
Lawless identified the mission of the Chamber as serving its members, which the survey would help accomplish and to find ways to draw more visitors to the island. To those ends, Lawless said, the Chamber was continuing to launch promotional weekends for the shoulder seasons, such as A Taste of Block Island, which has run yearly for the last five years, and most recently the introduction of Block Island Restaurant Week.
Clark and Willi detailed the initiatives the Tourism Council had worked on during the past year. Among these were continued advertising in prominent periodicals, expanded use of social media and a move into the realm of mobile marketing. Willi pointed out that the Tourism Council was guided by Open Meeting Laws and open to the public. She invited those interested to attend the bi-monthly meetings.
Audience members were asked to look over the list of 16 problems identified by Chamber members and to comment or raise questions; none did so.
The questionnaire pin-pointed three priority areas: high electricity rates; inadequate Internet service and a lack of tourism services. These results were confirmed in a second survey to which close to 70 Chamber members replied.
Explaining that the “focus of the Chamber is to meet the changing needs of its membership,” Lawless said that committees were being drawn up to address each of the highlighted issues. She asked members of the audience to sign up.
She felt this was the best way to help the town “begin to resolve some of the problems” recognized by the business community.