Tourism grants $10k to Chamber for summer staffing

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 7:00pm

After a discussion lasting nearly an hour that was at times conciliatory and at other times awkward, the members of the Block Island Tourism Council approved a $10,000 grant to the Chamber of Commerce to help fund two positions whose job it will be to market the entire island, as opposed to just Chamber members.

Chamber Director Cindy Lasser had hoped to secure $20,000 in funding for two positions that would work the counter at the Visitor’s Center in Old Harbor. The town owns the property and the Chamber pays the town rent to have its offices there. The motion for the $10,000 grant included a suggestion that the Chamber return to the town to ask for some rent relief to help reduce costs so that the remaining $10,000 of the request may not have to be funded. If not, Tourism Council members said that Lasser could return to the Tourism Council and reapply for additional funding if needed.

Aside from the funding, the other strand to the conversation — which is that some new business or agency is needed to market the entire town out of the Visitor’s Center — was also agreed upon and it was felt that those discussions would happen next fall or winter.

Before the discussion began, Lasser said that the Chamber was trying to increase its own revenue for the next year — it has discussed raising dues and rates — and has added advertising to its website, but with the rate and dues proposals not yet approved, and expenses rising, Lasser said that any help from the Tourism Clouncil was “definitely sorely needed.”

The discussion was begun by Tourism Council member John Cullen who said, with Lasser and Irina Murphy, the treasurer for the Chamber, in attendance, “I’m going to dive right in.” He said he had given the issue “a lot of thought” and made a motion to grant the funding request, but with several stipulations, including what is known as registering a fictitious business name with the Secretary of State’s office and to create a new bank account into which the Tourism funds could be deposited and withdrawn.

Cullen also said that he wanted “to be very clear that this is a one-time funding from the Tourism Council. There is no future funding to be discussed.”

The motion almost immediately created more questions. Murphy noted that the Tourism Council had, over the past decades, given more than $500,000 directly to the Chamber. “So now why do we need a new account?” she asked. Murphy also noted it would mean more work for an already thin staff.

“It may be more work but nothing good comes without hard work,” said Cullen. He also said that he was being extra cautious because he had gotten some feedback about the advisability of the Tourism Council using its taxpayer-funded monies to help fund a dues-paying organization.

“I’m not trying to be argumentative,” said Cullen. “I’m just trying to find the money to fund a private organization.”

Murphy also said she was surprised to hear the funding was a one-time grant. “The deficit is going to be here next year,” she said.

Tourism Council Chair Steve Filippi said “we’ll see how the summer goes” and if more funds are needed “you can come back.”

It was Council member Julie Fuller who said that a new path was needed to be created for the Visitor’s Center. “We need to create a new future,” she said, adding that creating the new company name and bank account was the first step in creating a new entity.

“We’ve inherited a really odd situation,” said member Logan Mott Chase.

“We all want to find a way to help the Welcome Center, and at least get the wheels turning for the future,” said member Zena Clark. “The present can’t be the future. It’s not working.”

Tourism Director Jessica Willi noted that tax revenue for the year has been down, and also said that the funding mechanism approved by the state has also meant less revenue for the Tourism Council, which is funded wholly by tax dollars.

Murphy said she felt the $20,000 request was conservative, to which Willi said, “Everybody’s budget is tight.”

Fuller, who is also the Council’s Treasurer, said that she recommended giving $10,000 to the Chamber out of the Council’s reserve fund, and for the Chamber to go back to the town to try to see if rent relief was a possibility.

“Hopefully, the town will say, ‘Let’s be partners on this,” said Cullen, who eventually withdrew his original motion. Fuller made a second motion to grant the $10,000, which was unanimously approved.