The Block Island Times
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Tourism Council and Chamber to meet with Town Council

Action needed on issues facing the island economy
By Gloria S. Redlich | Oct 13, 2013

As a follow-up to last week’s annual meeting of the Block Island Tourism Council and Chamber of Commerce boards, which highlighted some of the challenges facing the island, First Warden Kim Gaffett invited members of both groups to make a presentation at a special meeting of the Town Council on Oct. 15.

Tourism Council Executive Director Jessica Willi announced the invitation, which was accepted, at the Oct. 8 meeting of the Tourism Council.

A survey of the business community circulated by the Chamber at the Oct. 2 meeting raised a number of issues regarding the role of tourism in the life and economy of the town. Stressing the importance of that connection, members of both groups put their heads together to craft their presentation to the council.

Though many recurring problems surfaced — including upkeep and appearance of town streets and facilities — Tourism Council Second Vice-President John Cullen said he’d “just had a light-bulb moment. I think we all agree there needs to be a philosophical shift in the way the town views tourism.”

At least one businessperson on the island noted that many of the issues cited in the survey have been the topic of discussion on the island for years, if not decades.

Now that these issues are the topic of conversation once again, the question becomes, in the words of Spring House Hotel owner Frank DiBiase, “What do we need to do about it?”

From complaints to identification

The presentation to the council seems, in part, to be the first step in answering that question.

In the lively discussion that followed, members of each group moved from a posture of complaint to an attempt to identify significant issues they wished the Town Council to address. Chamber Executive Director Kathy Szabo suggested “putting together a Chamber-Tourism-Council list.”

Chamber President Mary Lawless said, “The town’s not looking so hot,” and said two comments included in the recent survey, which were anonymous, indicated that town leadership, including First Warden Gaffett and Town Manager Nancy Dodge, were “anti-business.”

Tourism Council President Zena Clark said she felt that the meeting with the council was an opportunity to underscore how the three groups can work toward a better understanding of the importance of tourism.

Willi mentioned the town receives more than $1 million in tourism revenue. Tourism Board member Brad Marthens agreed, but also said that the tourism industry here didn’t just boost the town’s coffers with tax monies, but increased sales for the island as a whole. Willi stressed it was important not just to present the problems to the council, but to offer solutions as well.

Tourism board member Shirley Kessler proposed having a liaison from Tourism and the Chamber attend Town Council meetings. “I should like to see the presence of one of us [at their meetings],” Kessler said.

Specific concerns included neglect of town bathrooms and irregular replenishment of supplies; infrequent trash pick-up and little or no upkeep of trash receptacles around town and a lack of appropriate signage when first coming off the ferries. Concerns about the beach pavilion focused on a failure to extend pavilion hours and services to accommodate the needs of tourists; these limited hours were felt to be incompatible with an extension of the shoulder season into fall.

Member Logan Mott Chase suggested that it was not only tourists who were unhappy about conditions in town during the summer season. She noted that many home owners and long-term renters of summer homes “don’t want to go to town for dinner or to shop. And they’re here for more than 48 hours.” Chase said the meeting with the Town Council was “a great opportunity.”

The lifeline of the island

“Conceptually,” Jess Willi said, “We need to say [to the council] these are the issues that matter to us and something needs to be done.”

The two groups spent the bulk of the meeting bandying about ideas.

With “a mild and beautiful” September drawing a number of tourists to the island, many visitors and businesspeople expressed disappointment at the early closing of the pavilion bathrooms and showers, which Szabo pointed out happened by mid-August.

“We’re inviting people to come out in September — a shoulder season — and there are no bathrooms at the beach,” said Zena Clark. Megan Moran, of Interstate Navigation said, “We need to continue to build the shoulder seasons and extend them. These last weeks, the weather was so good!” All agreed there must be some way found to keep the pavilion open longer.

Steve Filippi asked, “Will we ask them [the town councilors] what their plan is? Or shouldn’t we just list five or six things we need to address by next summer?”

“We need to emphasize that the money coming into town comes because of tourism,” said Marthens.

Clark said the position of the two groups when they meet with the council would be to advocate “for the lifeline of the island.”

In the end — in order to identify the most pressing issues for the town — each group decided to come up with its own list, from which they would craft a joint presentation. All agreed that both presidents, Clark and Lawless, should be the spokespeople for their groups, with other members present to support them.

The special Town Council meeting has been scheduled for Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

Miscellany

The Tourism Council considered whether or not to continue a subcommittee dedicated to developing a five-year goal-oriented plan for the Tourism Council. Kessler thought it was “important because it sets up our vision for how we view [the goals] of the Tourism Council.”

While recognizing the original importance of the five-year plan, Cullen thought many of the long-term goals had been incorporated into current agenda. He said, “We’re a vastly different board than we once were.” He suggested maintaining the committee — comprised of Clark, Kessler and Chase — but only having a meeting once a year. The council agreed.

Willi explained that a new Tourism Council video had been posted online and within a week had received 2,052 views. “There was great local feedback, as well,” she said, “With many people very pleased with it. It’s pretty exciting.” Willi said the video could be accessed by going to YouTube.com and doing a search with the words: “Welcome to Block Island.”

Willi also noted that she would receive the Mary Brennan Tourism Award at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association Annual Dinner to be held on Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. She encouraged all who were interested to attend.

The next Tourism Council meeting is scheduled for Oct. 29 at 9 a.m. at Town Hall.

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