Chamber, Visitor’s Center mission an uneasy fit

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 6:15pm

The members of the Block Island Tourism Council and the President of the local Chamber of Commerce began what almost certainly will be a lengthy discussion about how to best manage the Visitor’s Center that is located in Old Harbor.

The issue has been a thorny one. The staff of the Chamber works out of the building, but the Chamber is a private organization, which has fidelity to its dues-paying members. However, the more than 100,000 people coming through its doors during the peak summer season often are seeking recreation or activities or lodgings not offered by that membership.

Cindy Lasser, who took over the Chamber about two months ago, came before the Tourism Council to begin the dialogue and to see if there is a solution, given that, as both parties agreed, their missions overlap to a large degree.

The conversation was also meant to begin to bridge the gap between the two organizations, which in the past have seemed to be at odds with each other.

Lasser presented the council with two whitesheets detailing what the Chamber itself does, and what the Visitor’s Center provides for the island guests. Lasser said that because the need to provide services at the Welcome Center exceeds beyond just what the Chamber members provide, she planned to go before the Town Council on March 20 to ask for funding for two fulltime staffers that would offer information that would benefit all island businesses, not just Chamber members.

“The Visitor’s Center should be the whole island,” said Lasser.

“Tourism is our industry, so it makes perfect sense,” said Tourism Council member Zena Clark. “But the Chamber is a gray area” because the money being requested from the council will be “going into a private business. But it makes sense to create a separate entity.”

Lasser said the Chamber enjoys running the Visitor’s Center, but she added “I want to be fair to our members and fair to the island.”

“We have the same goals, but we need to untangle” the two entities — the Chamber and the running of the Welcome Center, said member Logan Mott Chase.

Another question arising from the discussion was, since the Chamber is funded by member dues, how would a separate entity that could run a Visitor’s Center for all island businesses be funded? Other welcoming centers are supported by their towns, the members said. (Interstate Navigation owns the land and the town owns the building the Visitor’s Center is in, and maintains the bathroom and lockers. The Chamber rents the space from the town for $11,700 a year.)

Tourism Director Jessica Willi said she was skeptical that the Town Council could provide monies to a private organization such as the Chamber of Commerce, and there was some discussion about providing to the council a job description of the new employees that would go beyond what the Chamber offers its members. The members also discussed whether a new organization or entity should be created that would serve the entire island.

“We have to find a way to make the Visitor Center for all businesses,” said member Julie Fuller.

“There are a lot of big issues,” said Chase, suggesting that the two entities should figure out a way to “separate and move forward.”

“It’s a tough one,” said Lasser.