The need versus the space
Town Manager Ed Roberge’s discussion aimed at solving issues associated with the town’s Visitor Center in Old Harbor turned into a debate about the need versus the room for clean and adequate bathroom facilities in Old Harbor during the summer season.
Roberge held a planning, needs, and goal-setting meeting on July 30 that was attended by board members of the Chamber of Commerce, which currently manages the facility, as well as the Tourism Council, and officials from the Town of New Shoreham. The meeting touched on having a more functional space, staffing needs, the Visitor Center experience, and messaging and training.
The hot topic during the meeting was how to solve the lack of clean and adequate bathroom facilities in Old Harbor, which led to a discussion about the need versus space. There are two facilities in Old Harbor, one in the Visitor’s Center, and one in the Harbormaster’s shack near the inner basin. There has been an inability to maintain clean restroom amenities in the Visitor’s Center, which the Chamber of Commerce sees as a first impression for tourists visiting the island.
At the outset of the meeting, Town Facilities Manager Sam Bird set the tone. “If we’re attracting people to the island, but not providing appropriate services we are not closing the loop. We’re not creating a good visitor experience.”
“Block Island is changing. It needs to evolve,” said Julie Fuller, Treasurer of the Tourism Council. “We need to move forward, and figure out how to move forward.”
Cindy Lasser, Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, reiterated her need for help cleaning and maintaining the restroom facilities in the Visitor’s Center. Lasser has been making that point since she took over the helm at the Chamber this past year.
“We are really lacking” when it comes to having clean bathroom facilities, said Jennifer Phillips, a Chamber of Commerce board member. “It says a lot about the town. It says a lot about the island. We’re really lacking in that regard” in Old Harbor.
“When you say we’re lacking, do you think we should have three restroom facilities in Old Harbor?” asked Roberge, who noted that there are two good facilities in New Harbor: at Ball O’Brien Park, and next to Smugglers.
In response, Phillips said, “People are in line to use the bathroom and it’s filthy when they get there, so it’s a really disappointing, awful experience. It’s important to keep the facilities clean. People getting off the boats need to have facilities, and there’s no place to go, especially during the summer season. There’s a real need for those” facilities.
First Warden Ken Lacoste asked Phillips what existing facility would need to be condemned and converted into a restroom facility.
“I’m not sure we should condemn anything,” said Phillips. “Maybe there should be an attendant in the bathrooms we have now.”
“Okay, well that’s one thing, but I keep hearing more bathrooms, more bathrooms, more bathrooms,” said Lacoste. “So, I want to know where we’re going to put them.”
“I understand there isn’t room for them, but that doesn’t mean there’s still not the need for them,” said Phillips.
“I understand the need for them, but I’m frustrated that we don’t have the room for them,” said Lacoste.
Molly Fitzpatrick noted that, “Not all of the toilets are available during a busy summer day because they are dirty.”
“So, we need more stalls,” said Roberge, noting that a changing area was also needed. People who are changing take up a stall space, he said. “If that was separated, like we did with the renovations of the Fred Benson Beach Pavilion, that really changes things, and adds simple capacity. If they coexist in one location — the stalls and changing areas; I think that’s going to help.”
Resident Bill McCombe, who is head of security for Interstate Navigation, said there are locations available in Old Harbor that could be utilized and connected to town sewer. McCombe said one location would be behind Interstate’s freight office, and the other is near the Harbormaster’s shack.
There was some discussion regarding the need for restroom facilities off-season as well. To that end, Sue Black said, “Maybe we need a Visitor’s Center that doubles as a facility for the Block Island year-round community. It would be a heated building, so we don’t have to worry about closing it down. That would be a facility that is available for the tourists that come to the island in April.”
Black also suggested that information about the island be posted on the ferries for tourist consumption. “Maybe the Chamber could have a little kiosk on the ferry,” she said.
Lacoste said he “had a vision of a laminated informational sheet that would be posted and updated on the ferries.” He said the more educated people are about the island, the more they enjoy spending time on the island.
McCombe said he felt the town, the Tourism Council, and the Chamber of Commerce should meet to solve the issues involving the Visitor Center, and restroom facilities in Old Harbor. “I think those entities need to get together to discuss things,” he said.
The Chamber of Commerce, a private organization, oversees the Visitor Center, which houses its office on one side, and public restrooms and lockers on the other. The Town of New Shoreham owns the building that is located on leased property from Interstate Navigation.
During the 2020 budget sessions, Lasser requested $20,000 in community support from the town to fund seasonal staff at the facility. The funding request fell one vote short (30-31) at the Financial Town Meeting in May.
At the end of May, the Tourism Council granted $10,000 to the Chamber of Commerce to fund seasonal staff. At its June 19 meeting, the Town Council voted unanimously to amend its lease agreement, reducing the Chamber’s annual $11,700 rent on the building to $5,850 for the period of Jan. 15, 2019 to Jan. 14, 2020.
Roberge told The Times that the next meeting concerning the Visitor’s Center will be held in late August. No date has been set yet. “The topic will be on properly funding a Visitor Center,” he said.