Tourism Board wrestles with funding dilemma
As the Tourism Council continues to wrestle with the mystery of why its rooms and meals tax revenue was down so dramatically for the month of July, the money crunch has already caused Board members to be a little skimpier with funding than they’d like. Eben Horton, the creator of the Glass Float Project, had put in his annual funding request, but this year he was asking for twice the funding he usually receives. The request of $6,000 to create the floats, which have become one of the most popular attractions on the Island, was something that Board members wish they could have approved, but instead settled on a $4,500 donation.
The context of the decision is the unusually low hotel tax collections from July. Tourism Director Jessica Willi reported that they were down $67,000 from the year before. But Willi noted that if the revenue was compared by the calendar year, from January to December, 2017 revenues were down by about $100,000 from what was collected in calendar year 2016.
As for the floats, Board Chair Zena Clark said of the project, “I think it’s wonderful for the island, but I don’t think we’re in a position to double our funding.”
“I agree. We have less money,” said member John Cullen. “I don’t know about $6,000. I was thinking $4,000. I’d hate to have it go away or lose momentum after it’s grown.” Cullen added that he didn’t think anybody knew the float project “would become as big as it is.”
Member Steve Filippi asked if Horton made any money off the project. Horton creates 500 numbered glass balls each year, which are then hidden on various trails, beaches, and fields on the island. They have become a much sought-after souvenir for island visitors.
“I think he’s passionate about this, but I don’t think he’s making any money,” said Clark.
Member Logan Mott Chase said the glass floats appeal to “all ages, all demographics,” and with that the appropriation of $4,500 was approved.
“That’s great a decision was made on funding. It’s an increase from last year and I needed to recoup some costs that had increased,” said Horton, when told of the vote.
As for whether the Glass Float Project would somehow not happen, or lose momentum due to a lack of funding, Horton said, “In regards to the Glass Float Project not happening — nope! It will happen this year. When I heard that I had to move my studio, I went into float production mode and I have boxes upon boxes of floats ready to hide. It’s a huge relief knowing that it’s something that I (and Block Island) won’t have to worry about.”
Horton said, “The way I fund the Glass Float Project is to secure the funding for the material costs to actually make the floats through the Block Island Tourism Council and I recoup all of my other costs through Gofundme.com. Donors who contribute $50 or more are granted access to a private Facebook page where I share photos of hiding the floats, share news about when I am going out to hide floats and I have created a very fun community of glass float lovers, or as they have named themselves ‘orbivores’ — a name that I just love.”
Horton also recently posted on social media that he was losing his long-time studio space in Wakefield, but he said he quickly found a new Wakefield location.
“About my studio move: that sent me into a huge panic as I have been at my current studio for 17 years. I was concerned that I would not be able to find a studio in southern Rhode Island and would have to find something in Providence or Fall River in an industrial mill setting,” he said. “Doing that would have killed my retail sales. All that said, I have thankfully found an incredible new studio space in town that is three times my current studio space. It’s going to allow me to have gallery openings and glass blowing events. Its amazing that this studio move was such a heart breaking thing, but it’s now an amazing opportunity.”
The Tourism Council also approved sending a letter to the Town Council asking it to ensure that two new bathrooms being built in the newly renovated Beach Pavilion will be open to the public even if the main building has not yet opened for the summer. The lack of sufficient bathrooms at the beach has long been a bone of contention for the Board, with the problem solved to some degree by the presence of outside portable bathrooms. The Board felt that when the bathrooms are finished, they should be accessible to the public.
Willi asked the Board for permission to write to the Town Council urging them to come up with a plan of when and how to open the bathrooms.
“We definitely need to speak up,” said Clark.
“Let’s get them to make a plan,” said Willi.
As for the case of the lower hotel tax revenue, Willi said that despite her best detective efforts with the state, no clues have been forthcoming. She said she was meeting with state Representatives Blake Filippi and Lauren Carson to see if any answers can be found. “I’m very frustrated by this,” said Willi. When newly-appointed member Dave Houseman said that he felt someone at the state Division of Taxation may have input the wrong data, Willi added that she, too, “keeps thinking there’s something wrong.”