Changes proposed for the Visitor Center

Councilor Risom lays out proposal
Thu, 01/23/2020 - 5:30pm

Councilor Sven Risom presented what he termed a “fairly radical proposal” for how the Visitor Center will be operated for the 2021 summer season.

“In 2021 we need to do something different,” Risom said at the Town Council’s meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 15. “I want to make it happen.”

Risom presented the members of the council a paper he titled “Enhanced Old Harbor Visitor Experience,” the objective of which was to “Improve the Old Harbor gateway with better bathroom facilities, more women’s rooms, improved lockers, reduced congestion and an enhanced/new Tourism ambassador facility.”

Citing the condition of the current bathroom facilities and lockers, and the fact that the center was the nexus of vehicle and pedestrian traffic, Risom proposed to:

- Significantly improve, expand and re-align Old Harbor bathrooms and lockers (in the current Visitor Center building).

- Double the size of the bathrooms within the current building framework

- Align facility’s needs to two-thirds women’s; one-third men’s.

- Add exterior water fountain and bottle refilling station.

As for the lockers, about one-third of which are broken beyond repair. At the meeting, Risom and others suggested eliminating them altogether for the upcoming 2020.

For 2021, Risom suggested moving the location of the new Visitor Center and into a structure smaller than the current building and staffed by two or three tourism ambassadors. Risom said this would be another way to reduce congestion at the current location.

The current occupants of the Visitor Center are staff members of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce. Discussions on the future of the Visitor Center were kickstarted by the inherent dilemma of having a private, dues-funded group perform a service that is meant to benefit the entire island. At this point, the Chamber is without a lease — it expired on Jan. 14 — but it has been suggested the town offer the group a one-year lease so that operations can be continued while discussion about the future of the building can be ongoing. (The rent the town charges the Chamber has also been cut in half. The land the building is on is owned by Intrastate Nav Co.)

It was Risom’s idea, in his memo, that the new Visitor Center be run by the Tourism Council, a group funded by tax revenue generated on the island and which is dedicated to promoting all aspects of Block Island’s attractions.

Locker room attendants and tourism ambassadors would be under the auspice of the Tourism Council.

At the Tourism Council meeting held earlier on Jan. 15, Tourism Director Jessica Willi informed the members of that group that Risom was putting forth this proposal, but the members took no action on it.

Tourism Council member Zena Clark said that she “was really hoping that something would be done with the lockers this summer. Thirty-five out of 90 are broken.”

“They can’t be fixed,” said Willi, adding that perhaps a solution was “eliminating the lockers altogether.”

At the Town Council meeting, Facilities Manager Sam Bird said “a lot of places are getting away from lockers. Homeland Security really frowns on them.”

There was some discussion about hiring a concierge and using baskets for visitors to put their belongings in rather than using the lockers for this upcoming summer season. The lockers could be removed and replaced with the baskets before the season began.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cindy Lasser said she also hoped that something would be done about the condition of the public bathrooms for the 2020 season, as well.

In his proposal put forth to the council, Risom also felt that closing Chapel Street at its Water Street entrance would ease the pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow onto Water Street.

Risom said he expected that the future of the Visitor Center “will be a multi-meeting discussion. We need to have a solution for 2021 that is better than doing the same thing again.”

“What do we need to do?” asked Second Warden André Boudreau.

“We have some ‘here and now’ issues and some issues that are transformational, and we’re kind of dealing with them at the same time,” said Town Manager Jim Kern. Kern will be heading up a small group to continue the discussions.