Whitehouse makes whirlwind tour of island
Rhode Island’s U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse spent the better part of the day on Block Island on Tuesday, August 23.
With a full itinerary, he started out at Town Hall meeting with the Town Council, Town Manager Maryanne Crawford and Finance Director Amy Land.
From there he and his staff did a downtown walk visiting island businesses before a luncheon with business owners at the National.
Later in the afternoon he met with Town Planner Alison Ring and Judy Gray, chair of the New Shoreham Sea Level Rise Committee at the beach to discuss problems facing the island, and to be apprised of the areas
the Sea Level Rise Committee has prioritized. All this before ending his trip with a visit to the Block Island Medical Center.
At Town Hall, it was the council’s chance to share with Whitehouse their concerns about local matters and to ask for help in furthering their goals. Recent legislation passed by the United States Congress, especially the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Act that includes money for broadband and the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act could make some funds available for the island, but tapping into them is difficult, especially for a small town.
When it came to divvying up funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, from which Rhode Island received about $1.1 billion, with $537 million going to cities and towns, Block Island received the least at $307,874, whereas the next lowest allocation, which was for Little Compton, was $1,038,402.
Second Warden Sven Risom, who was chairing the meeting in First Warden André Boudreau’s absence, said “Block Island was an asterisk,” when it came to allocating those funds.
One of three areas the council members wished to focus the conversation on with Whitehouse was broadband. Risom noted that just the day before he had heard former Rhode Island Governor, and now U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo say that her goal was to have broadband in every household.
Land told Whitehouse that Block Island was Rhode Island’s “first and only municipal broadband network.” She explained that in 2019 the project started by connecting the “anchor institutions” and now they are
connecting the entire island. “We are one of those communities that felt the [digital] divide really hard.”
Whitehouse had several questions about the project, and while there is plenty for the island to be proud of, Land wanted to also point out some of the difficulties.
The taxpayer-funded project may be ahead of the curve technically, but there are disadvantages. “The downside is we’re a bit ahead for the Federal dollars,” said Land.
“From a funding standpoint,” she said, “we haven’t been very successful.”
After answering some of Whitehouse’s questions, Councilor Keith Stover said the “theme of broadband segues into affordable housing.” He noted that although the island is one of the only communities in the state to achieve the goal of having 10 percent of the housing stock designated affordable, “we still have a housing crisis.”
Stover also conjectured about what having broadband might do to the existing housing stock as the island would become more attractive for those who wish to work remotely. An increase in the year-round
population could result in other consequences for year-round services. “We have to think about...what if we have 25 new students [in the school]. That’s an appreciable difference.”
While other communities in the state may be looking at much larger housing initiatives, Stover said: “We are in a way a laboratory here. A small amount of money really moves the needle here.”
“The ask is if you have a staff that does housing,” said Risom to Whitehouse. “The likelihood that we can figure it out on our own is pretty remote.”
Whitehouse asked if they had reached out to other similar communities, like Nantucket.
Stover said they had looked at other communities like Nantucket, but “they have much more in resources than we do.”
Risom said “Currently the town has a lot of land that they own,” but not the funds to build rental housing, especially. “We’ve got the land. Now all we need is the money.”
Whitehouse recommended reaching out to Senator Jack Reed, and offered to help the town do that as one of Reed’s areas of focus is housing. “He’s won every housing award there is,” he said. “We will definitely do that.”
The third area the council wanted to talk with Whitehouse about was the development of the Sam P. Meadow into a harbors facility along with the conservation land. Risom emphasized the community aspect of the project as a place for residents to use to access the Great Salt Pond as well as providing amenities to boaters. He was hoping that infrastructure funds could be tapped for the project and said that he hoped more definitive drawings and plans would be available in a couple of months.
After reviewing some maps of the area and hearing more about the project, Whitehouse said “It sounds like the challenges in front of you would be regulatory ones.”
Other topics brought up were roadways, and electric vehicles. The town has an electric school bus on the way, but Crawford explained the need for, and the attempt to get an electric mini-bus for use on the mainland. The challenge there, currently is finding a partner to host a charging station where the bus could be parked.
Stover told Whitehouse about the Solar Initiative’s campaign to get more electric vehicles on the island. With the number now on the road, he said “Per capita, we have the most electric vehicles” of anywhere.
“I have the worst [EV] made,” said Whitehouse. “And it’s fantastic.”
Later, over lunch at the National with about 20 small business owners, the conversation was more on the art of policy making. Whitehouse answered questions on the legislative process and the filibuster rules. He also emphasized how prepared one had to be to sell others on issues of importance to you, and the need to work together with a fixed set of 100 people in the Senate.
“It sounds like it takes a lot of stamina to be a senator,” said Meg Vitacco.
“It takes a lot of persistence with disappointment,” said Whitehouse.
Mary Stover said: “Persistence with a lot of prep.”