Presentation on Tourism Improvement Districts for annual Tourism Council meeting

Sat, 09/17/2022 - 12:00pm

The Tourism Council spent some time on Tuesday planning for its annual meeting and members very much hope that the business community shows up. The event is being planned for October 5, with a brief business meeting at 4:30 p.m. and a speaker starting at 5 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Spring House, and yes, there will be
This year’s speaker will be Tiffany Gallagher of Civitas Advisors and her specialty is tourism improvement districts. It is a vehicle the Tourism Council has been exploring for some time. The basic idea of a tourism improvement district is that a group of businesses agree to collect a fee from customers and to collectively use that money to improve something in their community – not as a matter of charity, but to further their interests in some way.
For example, businesses might collect a fee from customers to sponsor anything from trash pick-up to flower plantings. So far the Tourism Council is being purposely vague. It wouldn’t be run by them, and so they want whether or not to have one to be a result of buy-in from local business owners.
When the Tourism Council started exploring this idea, legislation to enable a specific, local district was necessary to set one up, but since then the state legislature passed, in the last session, a law allowing for tourism improvement districts statewide.
On Tuesday, the Tourism Council, besides planning for the annual meeting, discussed just how far to take the idea, and at what cost. Tourism Council Director Jessica Willi presented a series of three steps they could commit to, or not, with Civitas.
The first step is to have Gallagher come talk to the community, at a cost of approximately $1,500, about tourism improvement districts. The second step is to do a feasibility study and to set up a leadership structure, management plan, and a steering committee. That entire process would take about three months and cost $20,000.
The third option, or step, gives us “the whole kit and kaboodle,” said Willi. “By this time next year we would have this all set up.”
For it to work though, Willi said “You would need the support of the whole community.” But she said, it could also be a “no-go,” and written into the state law is a means of disbanding the district.
Option three would come with a price tag of about $75,000. “Any money spent on this would eventually get reimbursed,” said Willi. She estimated that on Block Island, it might
take to two to three years to form the district, and another two to three years for that reimbursement.
Although the Tourism Council does currently have the funds to spend on the idea, with an excess of revenues over expenses for the fiscal year that ended June 30 of about $114,000, they decided to start small and approved a $1,500 expenditure to have Gallagher speak at the annual meeting.
They are having to spring for about double that to have Megan Epler Wood present the results of a study on sustainable tourism on Block Island that was just completed. Epler Wood spoke at last year’s Tourism Council
annual meeting and received a positive response to her topic of sustainable tourism.
Following up on the talk, the Tourism Council got buy-in from the Town Council to move forward with a study that ended up being performed by students at Harvard University with a $10,000 grant.
Willi said that as sustainable tourism becomes more popular, she hoped “this won’t be a report that sits on the shelf.”
For now, the report is not accessible to the public, as it has been deemed one that needs presentation. “The idea is it comes and gets explained to us,” said Willi, “and we become the ambassadors of the report [to the community].”
The presentation to both the Tourism and Town Councils was scheduled for Friday, September 16 at 10 a.m. - bad timing for readers of The Block Island Times that may have wanted to attend.
The Tourism Council has the opportunity to participate in another grant. This time it comes through the R.I Department of Commerce, which oversees the regional tourism councils in the state, and comes from what
Willi termed a technology budget. She explained that the state wants to get all the regional tourism councils onto the same website platform.
Willi said she was pleased with the way the tourism council’s website functions now, and that it only costs $300 per year to maintain, whereas the new one could cost $50,000.
“I explained it's like driving a Ferrari on Block Island, and I like my Subaru.”