Tourism Council discusses Interstate's proposed rate hike
At a January 8 meeting, the Block Island Tourism Council considered whether to weigh in on Interstate Navigation’s intention to raise revenues. On November 27, the ferry company filed with the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) seeking approval to do so.
If approved, the rate changes would impact the island community through the elimination of commuter discounts for the nearly 900 year-round residents, an increase in one-way passenger fares and a hike in freight charges.
Noting that the town will have “a seat at the table” at the upcoming hearing, Executive Director Jessica Willi asked council members if they wanted “to take a stance” on the issue.
She thought it unfortunate that news coverage of Interstate’s proposal might have a negative effect on potential tourism, suggesting the emphasis on higher costs discouraged people from traveling to the island. Council member Brad Marthens said, “We do need to consider whether we as a council should make a statement.” He added, “This is something that affects the business community and people as well.”
Willi responded that “if freight goes up, the cost goes up on hamburgers.” Acknowledging one-way fares would rise 95 cents, she was hopeful that if Interstate succeeded in its quest for more revenue, it might then “allow [the company] to lower other things that might enhance tourism,” like discounts during shoulder seasons or offering “more flexibility” in other ways.
Marthens countered, “You can’t just raise the price of hamburgers because your [costs] go up. From a business point of view, you reach a point when it becomes no longer viable to have a business here because of rising costs.”
President Zena Clark said, “Jess is right; the publicity about this, that it’s going to cost more to get to Block Island, is not a good thing.” Logan Mott Chase reminded the council that it was “still so much more expensive to go to the Vineyard. Both car and passenger tickets are wildly more expensive.” [Passenger rates for the Martha’s Vineyard ferry vary widely depending on which means of transportation is selected. *See section below.]
“If there were an opportunity for Interstate to run more specials, Block Island would definitely benefit from mid-week discounts,” Clark suggested.
Block Island Chamber of Commerce Director Kathy Szabo said the chamber would take a position but was waiting to hear back from business owners.
With only four of the seven council members present, the group decided to examine the material available on Interstate’s filing and, as Marthens requested, put it on the agenda for the next meeting.
Martha Ball cautioned the group that the PUC would look at things differently than island residents would. “They look at it from a state perspective, from what benefits the state.” Willi suggested that Chase and Clark, who each have relatives working for Interstate, might have to recuse themselves if the council were to take a vote on the issue.
The PUC has scheduled a public comment hearing on island for April 11, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.. The evidentiary hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. on April 23, in Warwick.
Discussing new ways to stimulate the tourism economy, Szabo suggested the Tourism Council and the chamber sponsor a “restaurant week,” as many mainland communities do. Restaurants could offer packages discounting meals. Szabo suggested a time in June — possibly Race Week — or September, or both.
In addition, she proposed a Harvest Festival for Columbus Day weekend to encourage more shoulder season activity. Marthens thought the ideas excellent. He suggested moving the annual motoring event, which usually takes place in autumn close to the Oar Restaurant. He thought the airport would be a very interesting venue for a fly-in air show that could be combined with the motoring event, drawing many visitors.
Szabo thought it important to “find out more about Cape Air” — specifically about rates and when the airline planned to begin flights to the island. In August 2012, the airline and Rhode Island Airport Corporation received a $900,000 grant from the United States Department of Transportation to introduce summer flights between Block Island and Green Airport in Providence.
The service is meant to run from May to October, with rates contemplated at between $60 and $80 each way. Neither a start time nor a schedule has been confirmed to date by the airline.
Willi reported that hotel tax for October 2012 remained the same, while the total for last summer was up over $20,000.
She also announced the latest edition of the Block Island Magazine was on track for publication in March. Willi noted that copies of the Block Island Magazine “flew off the shelf” at the recent Southern New England Bridal Exposition.
Willi said the monthly meetings held for tourism representatives with Gov. Lincoln Chafee and “experts from around the state,” were very interesting. “It was nice to meet with people from historic preservation and state-wide planning and also very nice to have face time with the governor,” she added.
The next meeting was scheduled for January 22, at 11 a.m.
*The following are adult round trip prices in season:
Rates (different day) for the traditional ferry from Point Judith to B.I. via Interstate are $30.35 (including the fuel surcharge).
The proposed rate would be $36.45 (including the same fuel surcharge).
The traditional ferry from Woods Hole on the Steamship Authority vessel is $16.
Current high-speed ferry rates from Point Judith to B.I. on the Interstate vessel are $30.35 for different day round trip.
Rates from New London to Block Island on the B.I. Express are $50.24 for different day.
Rates on the high speed ferry from Martha’s Vineyard are $79.