How is business? Depends on who you ask

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 8:45am
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Tourism Director Jessica Willi said that she had done an informal survey of how business is on Block Island this summer, and she received a mixed review. 

“There is just as much tourism coming to the island,” said Willi. “But maybe how they’re spending money may be a little bit different.”

In an update that she provided to the Block Island Tourism Council on Tuesday, Aug. 14, Willi said “harbor activity is down, but the beach is up.” A random sampling of a few hotels found business “flat” and a question posed to a lone taxi driver also said that business was flat, as did a sampling of three restaurants. She said one retailer felt business was slightly up, while another reported it “was way down.” 

But Tourism Board member Steve Filippi, who owns and operates Ballard’s Inn, said that saying business is more or less what it was last season is misleading.

“Our costs rise three to six percent,” he said. “Our costs keep going up. Our goal is five to 10 percent growth each year. Flat to me is a bad year.” 

“As a personal business goal, that may be your goal,” said Willi, “but a five to 10 percent growth is not realistic for the island.”

Filippi also said the idea that the island couldn’t handle more people is a fallacy. “In terms of people, I don’t think we’re maxed out, not in the middle of the week. Anybody who makes that argument is foolish. We’re not at capacity in the middle of the week.”

“I want growth, too, but when there’s no place to go to the bathroom, or no place to put your trash, it’s hard to build the brand of hospitality,” said board member John Cullen. “You want a welcoming and clean environment. We’ve been talking about this for years. Everything falls on the shoulders of the road crew, and they have too many things to do.” 

Cullen also said he felt “the boats are not sold out.” He said the island may feel full “one day a week, but other than that there is room for growth.” 

Filippi also said it did not help matters that “parking in Pt. Judith is ridiculous. It’s from 30 years ago. It’s not paved, there are bird droppings everywhere.” 

Board member Dave Houseman also said it would be a mistake to use the summer of 2016 as a yardstick for what kind of business can be done on Block Island. That year, the weather was exceptionally beautiful, and Block Island experienced one of the most successful seasons in years.

Willi mentioned that CommerceRI, which oversees the state’s marketing campaign, had been out on Block Island filming a new set of online ads that will be used in the state’s “Fun-Sized” campaign to be released in the fall. 

Willi also mentioned that she had met with Congressmen Jim Langevin (New Shoreham is in Langevin’s district) and David Cicilline, and she said they were looking at some efforts that could bolster tourism, including a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure to improve public and rail transportation, bridges, and roads nationally, and a review of what is being done overseas to entice visitors to the country. 

Willi said she has also been tracking where the calls that come in to the Tourism office originate from. The states most represented by tourists are, in descending order: Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. She said there had been a slight uptick in calls from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

All of this boils down to real numbers for the Tourism Board. Its budget is funded by the tax generated by monies spent on Block Island. This year, there hasn’t been enough money generated to cover the budget. Tax revenues have brought in $275,558 so far, but Willi said she had budgeted for about $312,000. “So we’re short,” she said. “Fifty-one thousand in the red. Once we get June (tax revenues) in, we’ll know where we stand,” said Willi, but she doubted it would be enough to cover the deficit. “We’re going to be going into our reserve fund for the first time in years.