Visitor’s Center funding request sparks debate

During Town Council 2020 budget hearing
Thu, 03/28/2019 - 6:15pm
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The Chamber of Commerce’s request for $27,700 in community support from the town to help staff the Visitor’s Center at Old Harbor became a hot button topic at Monday’s budget hearing.

The Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit organization that receives its funding from dues-paying members, operates the Visitors Center where its offices are located. The new staff would be dedicated to providing island visitors information about the entire island rather than primarily offering information about Chamber members, which is the Chamber’s first priority.

During Monday’s budget session, Councilor Martha Ball said she felt the Tourism Council should help fund staffing for the facility, while Councilor Chris Willi said the funds should come from an increase in the Chamber’s annual membership dues. The topic seemed to open old wounds concerning the facility, with the difficult relationship between the Tourism Council and the Chamber of Commerce in the spotlight.

Cindy Lasser, the new Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, said she preferred to “move forward” rather than dwell on “past arguments.” Lasser submitted budget information to the Town Council prior to the meeting regarding the facility, and the council was following up with her to see if she had any questions. 

Ball asked Lasser why the Chamber of Commerce did not request funding from the Tourism Council. Lasser had in fact broached the topic at the most recent Tourism Council meeting, and was told by the members to come back to the Tourism Council after her meeting with the Town Council to update them on the situation. Lasser said the topic was also discussed during “a casual meeting with” Town Manager Ed Roberge and Tourism Director Jessica Willi in January.

Councilor Chris Willi said the issue was due to payroll going up at the Visitors Center. He suggested that the Chamber of Commerce send a letter to its membership base informing them of the shortfall to solicit funds from an increase in membership dues.

“You have 300 members,” said Willi, noting that, “The membership hasn’t gone up in forever. That’s just the silliest thing.” Willi said $115 in annual dues to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce “is a tremendous value. You need to appeal to the membership” for the funding.

Diane Hayde, President of the Chamber’s board, said she didn’t think “the right thing to do was raise membership dues. We really need to address the summer issues” associated with the facility.

Molly O’Neill, a current part-time Chamber employee, said she felt that while Willi had “points to make, I’m not sure that he’s un-conflicted.” O’Neill was pointing out that Willi’s wife, Jessica Willi, is Executive Director of the Tourism Council. O’Neill said, “There were some personality problems between the board of the Tourism Council, and the board of the Chamber of Commerce.”

O’Neill also noted that if the Chamber were to increase its membership dues “then that money should be spent promoting the members of the Chamber of Commerce. We already spend a ton of money out of our budget” in support of the Visitor’s Center.

Resident Bill Padien said he had a point of order issue. “When speaking about the Tourism Council, I think that Chris (Willi) should be recused, because his wife is the director of the Tourism board. I think that should be discussed. The perception is there that there might be a conflict.”

“We’re also all members of the Chamber of Commerce,” said Councilor Willi, who noted that he would “be happy to get an advisory” from the Ethics Commission regarding the matter.

Resident David Lewis said it was time for the Council to hold the Chamber and Tourism Council’s “feet to the fire” — and get them together to try and solve the problem. “Make no mistake,” said Lewis, “if this comes down to the town providing a subsidy for the next fiscal year to the Chamber to run the Visitor’s Center, you can be sure it will be subsidizing it indefinitely into the future.”

“That’s why I didn’t want to make a decision on this tonight,” said Ball.

“There obviously are old issues,” said Roberge. “I come to this with a new perspective, and I don’t really care about history. I’m hoping we can get beyond that.” The question, he said, is, “how do we move this forward, and make this best for the community? I will continue to engage both parties, to work through this, but I think it’s going to be a give and take.”

First Warden Ken Lacoste said, “This might be one particular request we should look at, if not funding it, at least reducing the amount of the rent.”

“That’s funding it,” said Ball.

“It’s funding it, but it’s a matter of helping out,” said Lacoste, who noted that doing so could decrease the Chamber’s funding request.

In other news, Roberge discussed the town’s 10-year capital improvement plan and its impact on the 2020 budget, as well as grant expense, the debt service and a general budget overview. As part of the capital improvement plan, or CIP, Roberge noted that $150,000 would be spent on expansion and replacement of the old Coast Guard dock. He said the dock had been removed and was being stored behind the Highways Department’s building.

The next budget discussion will be held during the Town Council’s meeting on Monday, April 1 at 7 p.m. The fiscal year 2020 budget can be found at new-shoreham.com.