Tourism council cobbles together a budget for 2021

Fri, 05/08/2020 - 4:00pm
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Trying to put together a budget when revenue streams are still unknown, the members of the Tourism Council passed a budget for the coming fiscal year based on the forecast that projects a precipitous drop in tourism dollars.

From a high of $371,000 in revenue in 2016/17, the budget for 2020/21 projects about $161,000 in revenue, and also includes an expected dip into the council’s reserve account.

The budget, which the Tourism Council passed at its virtual meeting on Tuesday, May 4, was $252,300. With $161,000 expected in revenue, the shortfall is to be made up by the $91,300 from the reserves.

“It’s a crazy time and that’s what reserves are for,” said Tourism Director Jessica Willi. “Reserves are meant to be spent in times of crisis.” The budget anticipates that as much as $90,000 could be spent from the reserves account, which Willi said would be built back up when revenue streams become more reliable.

Council Treasurer Julie Fuller said the budget is “as realistic as it can be at this point.” Referencing the layoffs at other tourism boards in the state, Fuller said “my personal opinion is we need Jess. We don’t have departments we can cut, like Newport and Providence has cut. We have to keep Jess because we need her. Besides, she does a good job, too.”

Unlike other tourism councils in the state that have had to lay off staff, Willi is the sole employee of the Block Island Tourism district. Willi said the budget allows for a fairly robust spending on advertising, at about $110,000, and also covers the salary and benefit package of $98,000.

Willi said the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, is not ending on a high note. The hotel tax revenue for March was “small,” she said, and added “expect nothing for April, and expect a very small amount or nothing in May and the same for June.”

Willi said she had a conference call with the head of the state Tourism Department, Heather Evans, and members of CommerceRI, who said that any restrictions and regulations regarding tourism would be decided based on guidelines from the Rhode Island Department of Health. The state is about to enter into the first phase of reopening this weekend, on Saturday, May 9, which Gov. Gina Raimondo said would not look much different from the present situation.

Given that Block Island has been in the national news almost constantly since the COVID-19 crisis began, with stories detailing how strict the island has been in terms of its emergency guidelines, Willi said that when restrictions do ease Block Island may be viewed as being a safe and healthy place to visit.

Willi noted that visitors from out of state still have to quarantine for 14 days if they come to the island, a situation that may change in phase two of the reopening. “This is obviously a huge thing for Block Island,” said Willi. Raimondo’s plan for a phase two reopening might begin on or about May 23.