The Block Island Times
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Tourism Council mulls changes

Separate annual meeting from the Chamber
By Gloria S. Redlich | Aug 13, 2014

During a routine discussion about meeting dates, members of the Tourism Council initiated a discussion about whether to continue to hold its traditional joint meeting with the Block Island Chamber of Commerce or go it alone.

Executive Director Jessica Willi, at the Aug. 13 meeting, asked whether the group would think about changing what had been scheduled as a regular meeting at 9 a.m. on Sept. 23 to an annual meeting held on the evening of the same day. She also asked councilors to consider whether they wanted “to continue doing a joint meeting with the Chamber of Commerce.”

In the interest of focusing on their own issues, Sven Risom said, “I think we should do our own.” President Zena Clark explained that the original purpose of the joint meeting had simply been so that “people could hear from both groups at one time.” However, she, too, added, “I would be in favor of just having our own meeting.”

After some discussion about who the group might select as a speaker for the evening meeting, Brad Marthens asked, “Are we trying to consider doing a combined or separate meeting?” Clark said, “Should we feel out how they [the Chamber] feels?”

Reiterating his belief that Tourism should have its own annual meeting, Risom said, “It would be good to show what we do. It’s healthier.”

Marthens said, “There’s always been [some] confusion about what they are about and what we are.”

Summing up the issue for the group, Willi said, “I think we should go to them [the Chamber] and say we’ve scheduled Sept. 23 for our annual meeting and that we’ve invited a speaker — and ask if they want to attend. And tell them that in the future we’re thinking of going it alone.”

Willi said that no decision was yet made, but that a conversation between the Chamber and the Council needs to take place.

Reached after the meeting, Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce Kathy Szabo said while she didn't know of the Tourism Council's intentions, she felt that "whatever they want to do is fine with us."

She indicated there wasn't anything written in stone about having a joint meeting, and that separate meetings were held in the past. Szabo said, "Now that they have a new board, they're certainly within their rights to make changes."

Block Island Chamber of Commerce President Mary Lawless said after the Aug. 13 session that she was in favor of having a joint meeting.

“My board has always been interested in what’s best for the island and the business community,” Lawless said. “We’ve worked hard for island businesses. Therefore, I think unity would be better than separation.”

Unity, she said, is better for the membership and beneficial for both entities.

“I think the Chamber and the Council need to work together, no question,” Lawless said.

Determining Tourism’s role in resolving problems

While praising the work of the Tourism Council and especially of Willi as director, Risom wondered aloud about what the council’s role was in assisting the town in dealing with ongoing issues. He asked, “What is it that tourists want when they come here?” And then answered himself, “Clean beaches and streets, and an accessible bath house.”

He said, “I think we should help preserve our beaches, our dunes and our [public] bathrooms.” He said he was also “appalled” by the difficulty there was for boaters trying to come in and tie up to use showers and other facilities. “That’s not a good tourist experience. Shouldn’t there be a town dinghy dock?”

His point was as he repeated his concerns: “From bathrooms, the beach to dinghy docks, how do we make sure the tourism experience is a really nice one?”

Willi asked, “While it definitely is what we’re here to promote, we’ve been in this discussion ad nauseum. I’ve heard the same thing since I first came on the council.” She pointed out that the council had been advocating changes to the Town Council “on bathrooms and trash” for a very long time. She said in fact the Town Council had been “extremely receptive to our ideas. They changed trash liners and tried to arrange for cleaning staff. I don’t know where the breakdown is on the town level.”

Risom asked, “Is it a lack of recognition of how important it is to the town?”

Marthens thought there was recognition, but that enforcement was “always an issue.”

Believing the Tourism Council needed to lead the way, Risom strenuously advocated that the group do something to keep bathrooms open at the beach through September and next spring, which led to a discussion of whether portable outhouses should be brought in.

Willi said in the past they had been, but they had not been maintained and people were upset about that. Risom wondered if staff couldn’t be paid to maintain the beach pavilion, in order to keep it open in a limited capacity just for access to bathrooms, which he felt critical.

After a back and forth, the group seemed to conclude that the town couldn’t afford to pay for people to do so. There then was discussion of the town’s commitments going forward, one of which is a new beach pavilion scheduled to be built by summer 2015 or 2016. No one seemed quite sure how to keep bathrooms open.

Clearly frustrated, Risom said the new pavilion was a long-term project. He wanted a “short-term fix.” He said, “We have to somehow get bathrooms open in September. I’ll go to the Town Council meeting with Jess [Willi] or Zena [Clark] or anyone.”

Willi then suggested the group write a letter to the Town Council and ask to be put on its agenda for its next meeting. With members agreeing, Risom asked, “Does everyone agree we should get the bathrooms opened for the shoulder seasons?” There was general agreement with his proposal.

Believing it so important, he added, “I don’t have a problem with the Tourism Council funding cleaning the bathrooms to improve the tourism experience for our visitors. From the tourism point of view, we need to make sure that the tourism experience is a good one!”

Director’s task report

In reviewing a list of tasks she’d undertaken over the past three months, Willi said among the highlights was the continued success of Tourism on social media. She indicated there were over 14,000 hits on the council’s Facebook page, and she added, “Twitter and Instagram are going great!”

She also noted that the Glass Float project was still ongoing and “going great!” People were still seeking and finding the floats and “really excited when they report they’ve found one,” she said.

Willi said she was in the process of working on a video; however, she was not prepared to discuss the details at the time.

She noted she had presented a contract, which hadn’t been signed and returned. When asked with whom, Willi said it was the annual contract between the Tourism Council and the Chamber, whereby the latter group receives $27,000 annually from the council.

She pointed out that the contract should have been signed by July 1, and the group puzzled over why they hadn’t heard from the Chamber. Risom thought perhaps it was “just the normal summer busy-ness” that caused the delay. Marthens suggested not making any payments until the contract was signed.

Willi said, “I think we’ll be hearing something soon.”

When reached after the meeting, Szabo confirmed that the busy summer season was the reason for the delay. She said that there has not yet been time to review the contract.

Lawless, however, said that both parties had not agreed as to the language and stipulations of the contract, adding that there has been "a history of personality conflicts with the people in the Chamber office."

Miscellany

Willi announced there was a Rhode Island Hospitality Association Gubernatorial Forum scheduled for Aug. 20, from 2 to 4 p.m. To be held at the Rhode Island Convention Center, the event is open to the public.

Noting that state monies for tourism had dwindled considerably, Willi reminded the council that there was no dedicated funding available from the state Division of Tourism.

Reviewing last weekend’s ConserFest, Willi thought it had gone very well, with good participation by many and with funds raised for conservation. Clark added that she had “heard good things about it. There were tons of people volunteering and tons of young people participating. And things for kids and families to do.”

The council also evaluated this year’s Fourth of July activities and felt on the whole as Willi did that “people seemed fairly under control and that the holiday weekend went well.”

Anticipating next year’s Fourth, Logan Mott Chase pointed out it would fall on a Saturday, which might create issues for the many people coming in off the boats, particularly renting families. There was some discussion of whether there could be a welcome area for renters who could not access their houses.

Finally, Willi mentioned that a small German airline, Condor, was looking for a destination airport for a direct flight to the States. The airline has narrowed down its choices to Rhode Island’s Green Airport and Bradley in Hartford, Conn.

It seems to come down to which state will offer to do the most advertising — in the amount of $100,000 — in Germany. Willi said that each tourism district in the state had been asked to contribute and she was suggesting the island council give in the amount of $3,000 or $4,000. Council members concurred that they should extend financial support to the effort at bringing an international airline to the state, but not in the amount suggested. They voted to contribute $1,500.

The next meeting is set for 9 a.m. on Sept. 10. The Tourism Council's annual meeting is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 23 at 5:30 p.m., with a location to be determined.

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