At the Block Island Tourism Council meeting last month, members were a bit flabbergasted that no-one showed up to represent the Block Island Visitor Center request for funding for the second month in a row.
The Visitor Center was spun off from the Chamber of Commerce last year as a separate legal entity, although there are still staff in common and they share the same space
downtown by the ferry docks. The head of the Chamber directs the center, but currently there is no executive director as Lars Trodson departed at the end of May after almost
a year-and-a-half in that position.
Running the Chamber has been left to employees Irina Murphy and Sarah Potenza.
The Tourism Council first reviewed the request for funding at its May meeting, but the members requested a “plan,” or a budget, for the Visitors’ Center. Then in June,
no one from the Chamber or Visitors’ Center showed up.
Tourism Council member Neal Murphy (no relation to Irina Murphy) volunteered to go down to the Chamber and talk with them.
So, on Tuesday, July 12, Irina Murphy, along with Chamber board member Suzy Milner, came to the Tourism Council meeting to ask for the funding in person and to answer any questions.
Irina Murphy explained that the Visitor Center, since it had been separated from the Chamber in March 2021, only had two expenses in its budget – payroll (and related payroll taxes) for the tourism “ambassadors” that man the center from 9 am to 5 pm daily in the summer, and Secretary of State annual filing fees.
was asking for
$15,000 in funding, up from $12,750 last year. She explained that the increase was because there was a small shortfall last year and money had to be transferred from the Chamber bank account.
With inflation and competition for workers, Irina Murphy anticipated this amount may have to be increased to make the job of tourism ambassador more attractive.
Tourism Council Director Jessica Willi asked if the Chamber was funding a portion of the budget.
Irina Murphy said that some the employees were getting paid partly from the Chamber and others solely by the Visitor Center.
While the Tourism Council has been generous this year with funding requests, Neal Murphy said that they should be prepared for a time when they might not be able to meet the Visitors’ Center request.
“You guys figured out a way to make it work,” said Member John Cullen. “So good job. Thank you.”
“I can’t imagine not having it open,” said Irina Murphy.
Neither could the members of the Tourism Council.
“What is the best way for you to be self-sufficient in case the Tourism Council” can’t meet future funding requests? asked member Thea Monje.
“You haven’t been financially viable,” for years said member Logan Mott Chase. “We all have a vested interest” in the Visitors’ Center. “Should we be running it? We’re always putting the BandAid on it.” She suggested the Chamber figure out a way to raise some revenues.
“We only ask for this funding for the Visitors’ Center,” said Irina Murphy. “The Chamber is self-sustaining.”
Besides member dues, the Chamber raises money through the sale of its “Blockopoly” game and its “Summer Symphony” fundraising event. The Town of New Shoreham also contributes to the shared effort, providing the building and waiving the rent in the amount of $10,000 per year.
Before moving to the Block Island State Airport, the Tourism Council shared the office with the Chamber.
Tourism Council Treasurer Julie Fuller suggested revisiting the topic in the fall. “What is the role of the Chamber? What is the role of the Visitors’ Center?” she asked. “It kind of murky.”
Milner suggested a joint meeting of the boards in the fall, adding that the Chamber does currently have a “good candidate” for the position of executive director.
“We’ve also been manning the 1-800 line, which was a Tourism Council line and do mailings,” said Irina Murphy.
“But you’re answering it with ‘Chamber of Commerce,’” said Willi. “It very few calls. I get the bills.”
There was more discussion about how the Visitors’ Center benefits the Tourism Council, the business community and the town as a whole, and ultimately, the Tourism Council approved the full request of $15,000.
“Good luck, ladies,” said Tourism President David Houseman.
The Tourism Council also approved a request of $500 for the annual Barbershop Festival, which is to be held on July 23, in honor of long-time organizer Peter Greenman.