Visitor’s Center funding falls one vote short

At Financial Town Meeting
Thu, 05/09/2019 - 6:30pm
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With a show of hands during Monday’s Financial Town Meeting in the Block Island School’s cafeteria the town’s registered voters fell one vote short (30-31) of authorizing the Town of New Shoreham to allocate $20,000 for funding seasonal staff at the Visitor’s Center in Old Harbor. The Chamber of Commerce, a private organization, oversees the facility, which includes its office space, and public restrooms and lockers for island visitors. The Town of New Shoreham owns the building.

The question of funding the facility was a hot button topic raised by Cindy Lasser, the Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, during the Town Council’s budget work sessions this spring leading up to the FTM. Lasser initially sought a $27,000 community support grant in the town’s 2020 budget to fund seasonal staff at the facility. During the budget process, after her first meeting with the Town Council, she softened the request to $20,000. Lasser said the staff would be paid $13 an hour per day from June 16 to Sept. 21.

Resident Steve McQueeny made the request to add $20,000 to the Chamber of Commerce’s line item under community support in the town’s budget at the FTM Monday night. McQueeny’s motion called for amending the budget to accommodate the funding for the facility’s staffing needs.

McQueeny stepped to the microphone, and said, “Our only business on this island in the 21st century is tourism.” He said the town and the tourism council receive revenue from the hotel and meals taxes that could be utilized to fund staff at the facility. McQueeny said numerous boats arrive daily at Old Harbor, “overwhelming the staff at the Chamber of Commerce. If tourists aren’t happy campers they will go elsewhere.”

McQueeny said the Visitor’s Center was “originally built as a joint facility for the Tourism Council and the Chamber of Commerce to provide visitors with information in order to enhance their visit, with the hope they would come back again.” He called for staffing the Visitor’s Center with “Tourism Counselors,” from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Resident Donna Corey said she “was very surprised to see that the town did not give any funding to the Chamber of Commerce” in the 2020 budget. “Especially since there is such a need there,” she said, referencing the seasonal mess created in the restroom facility. “The Chamber really struggles with that.”

Resident Jim Hinthorn said, “What gets confusing to me is the Chamber and Tourism. It almost seems to me that it ought to be one, although I understand that people buy memberships with the Chamber. But I look at that building and say tourism is our thing. I don’t understand why at some point this thing isn’t merged. That’s probably a topic for a different day.”

Town Manager Ed Roberge said there have been “exhaustive discussions” about the facility. “The issue here is that we have an old system that’s not sustainable. This is a policy related issue,” and that the island’s “business is primarily tourism.”

“We didn’t make a recommendation not to fund the facility,” said Roberge, noting a town review of the facility. “We said we need to explore this issue to understand what is the most sustainable practice.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council have been meeting and discussing the subject, exploring ways to fund the facility. Some members of the Town Council told The Times after the FTM that the two entities should be tasked with finding a funding solution.

In addition, First Warden Ken Lacoste said the town is considering forgiving the Chamber’s $11,700 rent for the building. The Town Council members all voted against funding the positions at the FTM.

“We want the Tourism Council and the Chamber of Commerce to work together to find a solution,” said Lacoste after the FTM, noting the difficult position that Town Moderator Molly O’Neill was put in during the vote. O’Neill is a staff member of the Chamber of Commerce, and her father, Steve McQueeny, requested the vote for funding the Visitor’s Center. “Molly did a great job,” he said.

As for how the Visitor’s Center should be handled moving forward, Lacoste said the town council is “going to have future discussions about it. I think the Town Council is going to look leniently at the situation regarding the rent for the building.”

Councilor Sven Risom said, “I think the right decision was made tonight. We don’t want to increase the budget for that item specifically. It will be funded. We’re working through the process.”

“The town has a number of vehicles to help,” said Risom. “The rent is one. I’m confident the right outcome will be determined for the summer season. Let’s do it right, and we’ll get through this.”

Risom said, “For the long term — I brought this up with the Town Council for an agenda item — what do we want for a Visitor’s Center? How do we address those needs? And how do we better support tourism on the island?”

Second Warden André Boudreau said the Town Council would be looking closely at the issue moving forward. “The Chamber needs to speak with the Tourism Council about funding the facility, instead of asking the taxpayers to pay for it. They should get it from Tourism, because Tourism was funding it before.” Boudreau pointed out that the Tourism Council funded the facility in the past, until the Chamber of Commerce said that it no longer wanted to receive the funding.

There were no other bumps in the road, nor big-ticket items debated for voter authorization associated with the 2019 warrant during the FTM. Moderator, Molly O’Neill, and Assistant Moderator, Pat Doyle, read through the warrant, item by item, and their motions were all met with relatively quick approvals.