Chamber of Commerce president resigns

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 6:15pm
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A day after she publicly read a scathing letter about what she called “self-serving” practices by the Tourism Council, Block Island Chamber of Commerce President Diane Hayde abruptly resigned.

The Chamber Board held an unscheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 2, a day after Hayde had read a lengthy letter about the Tourism Council during the public comment section of the Town Council meeting. Hayde handed in her letter of resignation, which took effect immediately, the following day, on April 3. Hayde had served as president since September 2018.

Hayde told The Times that she was not representing the Chamber of Commerce when she spoke at the Town Council meeting, and that she wrote her speech an hour prior to the meeting. “I was representing myself; not the Chamber. I had reservations about coming forward. And I didn’t anticipate the backlash,” she said. Hayde owns the Sheffield House on High Street.

At the same time, Hayde said she “had to come forward” regarding the performance of the Tourism Council. “There needs to be some changes. It’s not acceptable to me, and I hate to rock the boat.” She said she has “no problem with the Chamber,” and “[Director] Cindy [Lasser] is working hard to make everything work well. And I think that is fantastic, but I thought it was best that I step down.”

Hayde said in her speech at the town council’s meeting that she felt “the Block Island Tourism Council’s focus is more of an advertising agency promoting a handful of businesses of its choosing rather than a tax funded agency who’s purpose is to bring visitors” to the island.

Reached for comment on Wednesday, Executive Director of the Tourism Council Jessica Willi stated “while I and the Board appreciate Mrs. Hayde’s right to her opinion, her allegations are misconstrued and unfounded. The Board and I are happy to share all marketing strategies and advertising opportunities with anyone interested in learning more about what we do. We remain proud of the job we do, and will continue to market Block Island to the best of our ability."

Lasser told The Times that the Chamber of Commerce held an emergency meeting on the morning of April 2 to discuss the matter. Lasser said, “We discussed it and Diane offered to resign.”

“Diane clearly spoke at the town council’s meeting as a business owner and not as president of the Chamber of Commerce, but it was hard to separate those,” said Lasser. She said she had no knowledge that Hayde had prepared a speech, and intended to speak at the meeting. “I certainly didn’t know that she was going to do that,” Lasser said.

Lasser, who has preached “moving forward” at meetings over the past few weeks, and has served as Executive Director for three months, noted that her “message and Diane’s message are in total conflict. I can’t have that here. I’ve been doing a lot of work establishing relationships. I’m trying to mend fences.”

Despite that, Lasser said Hayde “did what she thought was best for the Chamber of Commerce, and is leaving on great terms. She was a tremendous help to me. I will miss her.”

As for the future of the Chamber, Lasser said the board’s next meeting is April 30 when a new president and reelections will be discussed. Lasser said there are five board members, and, “Everybody’s term is up except for Steve Draper.”

“We want to be the best we can for our businesses, and hopefully we’ll have a prosperous 2019.” Lasser also said that she wants “to change the way the Chamber is perceived. I think that we have.”

Board member Jennifer Phillips said, “We’re moving forward. Every once in a while this kind of thing happens; you take one step backwards, before you take a step forward. That’s the island.”

Willi said she “echoes the feeling in the community that everybody wants to move forward. The Tourism Council looks forward to supporting visitors’ services, and enhancing the tourist experience on Block Island. I think you hear at our meetings from the Tourism board that we truly want what’s best for the island. That includes a viable Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center is extremely important, no matter who is managing it. It needs to be supported.”

Lasser has appeared before the town council to request funding for two seasonal staffers at the Visitor’s Center that would focus on providing information about all island businesses and attractions. The Chamber’s office is located in the Visitor’s Center, and the staff has found the process of providing that kind of information while also trying to promote their own dues-paying members a bit problematic.