Blue sky planning for the Visitor’s Center
How to turn a thing of many parts — the operation of the Visitor's Center in Old Harbor — into one cohesive plan was the topic of a conversation at Town Hall on Thursday, May 30.
Town Manager Ed Roberge led the discussion in front of about 30 residents. What he was looking for, he said, were “blue sky ideas” — ones that have no restrictions, but would instead reflect the possibilities of what the Center could offer, rather than what it could not.
“There's been a lot of conversation about our Visitor's Center, so let's keep it going,” said Roberge. He said he wanted to hear ideas on three topics: operations, space needs, and funding. In other words, said Roberge, “How it will operate in the future. What will it look like? Act like? What are the expectations?”
As it stands now, the Visitor's Center is a building gifted to the town by Interstate Navigation. It has been operated solely by the Block Island Chamber of Commerce for the past couple of years. The awkwardness is centered around the fact that the Chamber has fidelity to its dues-paying members first, but many of the island guests who come into the Center are looking for general information, such as directions to a certain place. The Chamber severed its ties with the Block Island Tourism Council a few years ago, losing $20,000 in annual funding, which helped, in part, to pay for the answering of an 800 line that visitors could call. The Chamber has been looking for additional funding from an outside source to help pay for two summer time staffers who could answer general questions at the Center.
The Tourism Council recently voted to restore $10,000 of that funding, but the question still remained as to how the Visitor's Center should be staffed and who should run it.
“This is a front-door component of our community,” said Roberge. He also said that Town Facilities Manager Sam Bird, an architect, would be leading any design effort that may come out of the discussions.
Bird said there were obvious constraints as to what could be done to the building. The Linda family, which owns the building, has stated it does not want the building to be expanded. It is located in a tight space in Old Harbor, with bike, pedestrian, and car traffic passing directly by.
One of the issues is that the space where guests enter to ask for island information is designed in such a way that there is more office space for the Chamber than there is for tourists seeking information.
“Create space for the thousands of tourists coming off the boat,” said current Chamber President Cindy Lasser.
Town councilor Sven Risom, who owns a business that operates year-round on the island, North Light Fibers, suggested making the center “more welcoming, more engaging.” He said “right now you walk in and see nothing but a counter. No 3-D monitors, no visuals.”
John Cullen, a business owner who is also a member of the Tourism Council, said “this is the moment of truth for people. This is the first impression for people getting off the boat if they haven't been here before. If we're going to go down this road, I don't think we can cut corners. I don't think we should settle for average.”
“Facility layout is also going to be important,” said Roberge.
Former Town Manager Nancy Dodge wanted to remind those gathered of one fact. “This is not the town's property, nor is that parking lot,” she said. But she countered what John Cullen had said about the Center being the first thing people see coming off the boat. Dodge said that the vista behind the Center is what people are seeing for the first time.
“That is the town. Nothing is better than that view of the town as you pull in,” said Dodge.
Tourism Council member Zena Clark, who is also a business owner, mentioned that the doors to the building are currently on the side of the building. She suggested “two doors facing the harbor would make it more welcoming.” She suggested interactive kiosks — “like large iPads.” She also had a more immediate recommendation: “The lockers need to be gutted and replaced.”
Lasser suggested “enhancing the outdoor space. That parking lot is treacherous.”
“I think the outdoor space could be much more attractive, a safer space that is attractively landscaped,” said Cindy Pappas, who is the Chair of the Housing Board and a realtor. She also suggested more seating for the area.
Sue Brown Black, who has been recently trying to create an arts and crafts collaborative, suggested using the space to showcase “artists and makers,” but she emphasized this would only work in the “off-season when the tourists aren't here.”
Roberge reminded the gathering that the building had been gifted with the intended use as a “hospitality center.”
Dodge again reminded everyone that the town did not own the property, but did own property off Water Street, across the street from The National Hotel.
Roberge said that the town “couldn't do anything without the participation” of Interstate Navigation.
Other suggestions were made: a call center, shower facilities, bathroom attendants for guests, and moving the offices of the Chamber to another location.
Tourism Director Jessica Willi finished the evening on another practical point. “If you're going to create a new facility, you're going to have to have a maintenance plan for that new facility,” she said.