Future of the Visitor Center a ‘difficult discussion’

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 5:15pm
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The third and final public forum on the future of the Visitor Center located in Old Harbor focused on the costs of running the facility and who, and how, it would be staffed.

As it stands now, the Chamber of Commerce operates the building, but given that many of the tasks that staff offer to island visitors are outside its membership, the discussion has been on whether the Center should be run by a third party group that would satisfy the needs of all businesses on the island.

Town Manager Ed Roberge said that “the cost of doing business today” at the Visitor Center is between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. “That’s a bare-bones operation,” said Roberge. The forum was held at Town Hall on Thursday, Nov. 14.

Roberge said that Interstate Navigation is the leaseholder on the property, and owns the building. The building is rented by the town to the Chamber.

The lease is up in January 2020 — just two months away.

“Who is going to occupy it and run it, and how do we go from there?” asked Town Councilor Chris Willi, who was in attendance. “Operationally, it’s a town building. The first decision the council will have to make is the lease.”

“Where are the funds going to come from? Is it going to come from the tenant? How can it otherwise be arranged?”asked First Warden Ken Lacoste. “Does the town want to support the services that are provided there?”

Willi said his opinion was that “it would have to be a for-profit. No one’s going to go in there and run it at a loss. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in now.”

“How do we get through that,” said Roberge. “Is it a collaboration between Tourism and the Chamber? For the last umpteen years, it’s been Chamber-run. The Tourism/Chamber model, maybe that works.”

What needs to be achieved, said Roberge, “is some sort of neutrality that supports all of the community.”

Tourism Director Jessica Willi said that funding could come out of the $1 million that returns to the town from tourism taxes. “Earmark it so that it goes right to the Visitor Center,” Willi said.

Roberge suggested issuing an RFP to see what it would cost to run the facility with three tourism counselors, identify possible revenue sources, “and provide equal opportunity for all businesses.”

Chamber President Cindy Lasser then asked, “Are you talking about the Chamber moving out of the office completely?”

“Yeah, probably,” said Roberge.

“That puts us in a worse position,” said Lasser.

Logan Mott Chase, a member of the Tourism Board, said the Chamber should not look to the town to fix what is essentially a private business.

“The overall queston is what is the function of the Chamber,” said Roberge. If it was to continue to operate out of the Visitor Center, “then it would have to be an equal-opportunity to provide information.”

“If the Chamber is going to promote all businesses,” said Chris Willi, “Then what is the benefit of me being a member?”

“This is the difficult part of the conversation,” said Roberge.

Lasser said that Chamber employees had a vast store of island information that can be dispensed at the Visitor Center to all visitors. “The information we can dispense is flawless,” she said.

Willi suggested the town go to the Chamber with a 12-month lease to buy time to come up with a more detailed solution than what perhaps could be arrived at in the next two months before the Chamber lease runs out.

This recommendation was agreed to by those in attendance.