TOM WARD - Tourism: First, do no harm to Blackstone Valley efforts

TOM WARD - Tourism: First, do no harm to Blackstone Valley efforts

I have mixed feelings about Gov. Gina Raimondo's efforts to fund a strengthened state effort to promote Rhode Island. Putting dollars behind a robust effort to "sell" our state to far-flung tourists is much needed. There's no doubt about that. How many of us have watched the "Pure Michigan" TV spots, or have come to "love New York" after years of listening to the iconic campaign? And how many of us wonder: Why, with all of our beaches, with Newport, with our restaurants, Waterfires, and yes, with a new national park ahead, why aren't we in this game? Isn't it true that tourists spend money and pay sales and hotel taxes, funds that might otherwise have to come from our own pockets? Yes, they do. And so we need to do a better job to lure them here.

In Raimondo's first budget, she has called for a re-do of the state tourism budget, with funding reductions to the groups like the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Those dollars instead will head to the state's new Department of Commerce, and be used for a comprehensive state media campaign.

Added to those dollars will be new sources of revenue: taxes on hotel rooms secured through websites like, room taxes on small bed and breakfasts, and yes, taxes on summer rental homes and condos - all private properties - along our shore. I miswrote last week that those taxes were not in Raimondo's proposal, but they are, and I'm in favor of them. For a time my family owned a condominium in Florida and "snowbirds" were made to pay both state and county taxes on the rent. I have no quarrel in doing that here. To repeat: Every dollar a visitor pays in taxes is one less we residents have to pay.

I spoke with Bob Billington, the founder and longtime president of Blackstone Valley Tourism. Needless to say, he's not thrilled with the proposal to cut $176,000 from the current $360,000 the council receives annually from its share of valley hotel room taxes. While he, too, would like to see a strong state tourism effort, he thinks plenty of money can be raised with the new taxes, and sees no reason to cut the group he built. Through what he calls "sustainable tourism," and "from the ground up" events, his budget is about $1.1 million, much of it earned by the council.

I think Raimondo is on the right path. Tax visitors and use those taxes to attract even more tourists, and have them pay even more taxes. But Billington has a point, too, and he has little faith top-down marketing efforts would focus on the Blackstone Valley.

Here is my take on this. Would we have the very successful Polar Express train ride each December from the Woonsocket train depot without Billington's efforts? No, we would not. The BVTC, in fact, raises about $500,000 in revenue each year from the Polar Express, and those revenues create four full-time jobs.

As a kid from Woonsocket, what I know is that for most residents of Rhode Island, and what seems like most political leaders, too, the state begins at Providence and goes south. We grow up knowing we are the poor step-children in our state, and frankly, many have a chip on their shoulder. In this state, it's all about beaches, Providence, the bay, and Newport. Billington notes next month's Volvo Ocean Race, a one-week event off Newport, will cost state taxpayers enough to fund his BVTC for two years.

Yes, there have been a few miscues along the way for the council, long since paid for. But does anyone really think that, if left to "top-down" managers in Providence would have created the profitable Polar Express, or the riverboat Explorer, used for both enjoyment and education, or the bikeway, or many other recreational facilities here? I doubt it.

Billington's other worry: Raimondo does great tourism work, but subsequent administrations cut it back to nothing in tougher times. Been there, done that, he says.

Raimondo has the right idea. More visitors, more taxes on them. But for now, I hope lawmakers choose to do no harm to the Blackstone Valley's progress.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze.


I like that the conversation of tourism in RI has begun. But, Tom, I think you are confusing tourism with tourism. I'm sorry to say, RI doesn't have an obvious natural attraction. We don't have skiing. No amazing history. No native people. No cuisine. No volcanos. No grand waterfalls. No world class resorts. The weather is hit or miss. Basically, RI doesn't have a catch phase.

What is does have, is location and demographic. This is key to the tourism industry. RI is smack dab in the middle of everything. So, when you say tourism, you should be thinking events and conventions. Providence is less than an hour from Boston, Worcester, and Hartford. It is ultimate meeting place for an organization to host a New England event. These events don't just bring families looking to take some photos of a lighthouse. They attract hundreds and thousands of individuals with money to spend, whether it's their own cash or on the corporate AMEX.

You mentioned the Newport races. This is one of those events. Half the states in the country have beaches and boats. That doesn't make RI special. But we do put on the big show. We need more of these. We have an easy access airport. Hotels aplenty. Every kind of food and drink. A quick drive to any destination. Now all we need are the attractions. I don't know that the Blackstone Valley Coridor is where your eggs. The boat tours and polar express are a nice supplement. But honestly, it's more of a treat for the locals.

Convention Center, Civic Center, PPAC, Twin River, RI Red Sox, beach events...this is what you want on your tri-fold fliers. "Build it and they will come". Well it's already built. Advertise it. Do you know how many giant music festivals are in New England? Zero. Where would be a good place for one? RI.

I'll end with this eye opener: you know those nice tourist info areas you stop at when driving through a new state? It's usually a rest stop with a big map and vending machines, where they highlight local stuff and you get coupon books for hotels. Well, RI has one of those. It's on 295N, on the way out of the state. Lol.

Your Neighbor, with all due respect to your own opinion, I feel as though you are missing the point and not categorizing tourism correctly in your evaluation. Not everyone wants to travel to far away lands and stay in an all-inclusive resort. Tourism is more localized these days. Also, from the comments you made you have probably not read that Providence is rated as a top food location in the U.S. and a top city in Travel & Leisure, that we do have a world-class 5 star hotel in RI, that the music festival was essentially invented in Rhode Island (the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, which still brings 10s of thousands of visitors to Rhode Island each year over the weekends they takes place), that Blackstone Valley is one of our nation's newest National Parks BECAUSE of it's historical significance, and that The Polar Express brings in thousands tourists from around the country and internationally. Plus, RI has hundreds of miles of ocean beaches (not to mention the additional lakes and streams) that many would consider as a natural attraction.

Rhode Island is more than a catch phrase, I'm sure you know that. It's diverse in culture, geography, and cuisine. Go ask a Rhode Islander where they are from and they'll probably tell you the section of the city or town (i.e Riverside, not East Providence; Chepachet, not Glocester). Putting everyone into a box isn't going to work. Look a what happened to the Providence Journal when they got rid of localized news and when to a Providence-centric state brand...their readership dropped.

Yes, I fully agree in a statewide brand and think it is necessary. I'm with you on that 100%. I look forward to what comes of that. But, advertising doesn't make Blackstone Valley a National Park, and advertising won't develop it either. The fact that it is now means that Rhode Island's Blackstone Valley is on the same level as any other National Park. Put what you want on a tri-fold, just make it equitable around the state, and allow the development of tourism assets to continue and not be severed by loss of funding.

Sustainable tourism development is about building up communities so that tourists will come. And, these days many tourists are looking for authentic experiences...not cookie cutter destinations and national chains. That is what I feel Tom was talking about in this article.

We need to support small businesses and small restaurants, preserve attractions and historic homes, and build up downtowns. That is what is at stake. A loss of community development, and pride and development on a local level. PPAC is great, but what about the dozens of other theatres in RI? Do they not deserve respect and attention as well? Or, should all the money be put into one basket, as you alluded to?

Lastly, the 295 visitor center was built as a gateway to the State Park(which is now a National Park) that runs along the Blackstone River and Blackstone River Bikeway. It wasn't intended necessarily as you described. Many do make those same comments as you.

The Jazz Festival is in Newport during the middle of the summer. Like Newport is hurting for tourism in August. But, yes it is a good attraction for a brief minute. Most of the people who attend are locals or semi-locals. You put a Phish concert in the middle of Lincoln Woods and you'll sell out every hotel, diner, and food store within 30 miles with 30,000 people from all over the country. As far as the polar express, every state has one. RI's train isn't even in the top ten. So your claim of it being an international draw is pretty suspect.

The point is, you need stuff on a regular basis. The convention center is never at capacity and most events are local business luncheons. That's your cash cow right there. Once someone tours a Newport mansion or rides a boat on the Blackstone, they're never coming back. Twin River is actually doing a great job of diversifying their value. It's the kind of place you actually want to go to more than once a decade. Been here all my life, never went to the Smith Appleby House...not for lack of culture, just cause I don't care. And for what it's worth, Wright's Farm is not good food. Only people from RI think it is.

From The Valley Breeze, Nov. 19, 2014

WOONSOCKET - An event on Saturday, Dec. 6, will showcase the top-notch holiday entertainment operated at One Depot Square to guests from across the country, when The Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg visits the city to celebrate the anniversary of a movie inspired by his classic Christmas picture book.

The Polar Express 10th anniversary celebration will include a book signing by Van Allsburg, a festive model train display, and a speaking program with executives from Warner Bros., the production company that created the film, and Rail Events Inc., the business that runs Polar Express operations nationally.
According to Billington, there are around 30 similar productions, licensed by Rail Events Inc. on behalf of Warner Bros. Consumer Products Inc., on train lines in other locations, but Woonsocket's replication is the oldest, even preceding the film.

For a organization whose main mission is to promote tourism in the Blackstone Valley, the annual holiday event is a huge success story.

"We always drew from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and then the Connecticut market started to come in," said Billington. Now, he says, the event is also pulling in many guests from New York.

"The further away they come from, the greater the impact," said Billington. "We want them to come the night before, hopefully eat somewhere. Our hope is always to generate economic impact. That's our job."
- Tom Ward

A credible person with contacts in the R.I. Convention and Visitors Bureau writes to me:
"Last week we had the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts at the convention center that was attended by 3,500 artists and contracted 4,000 room nights at our area hotels. The same week we had the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Regionals with teams visiting from Colorado, Ohio, Massachusetts and our local PC Friars that attracted 14,000 persons to the Dunk over the weekend. BC alone purchased 1,500 tickets. 400 room nights were occupied at our hotels and this week we are hosting the Church of the Pentecost that has booked the convention center for 2,000 visitors that have booked over 1,000 room nights rooms downtown.
Just another week of business lunches indeed."
- Tom Ward

Rhode Island's biggest problem is that, probably due to its diminutive size, the state is anti-competition. If we have one world-class 5 star hotel in RI, that hotel doesn't want to see another built. If there's a boat to Block Island leaving from Galilee, nobody wants a second one leaving from Providence Pier. ("You can't get there from here.") Taxi companies are anti-Uber. Food trucks can't park near restaurants. It's a wonder we even have McDonald's AND Wendy's. Even the public school system is adamantly against charter schools, for the same reason.

Who builds a visitor center on the way out of the state? Somebody sure has a sense of humor; all it needs is a sign from the Beverly Hillbillies: Y'all come back now, y'hear?

One of Rhode Island's biggest problems is one that is long lived, and has shown no signs of slowing. A perfect example of that problem just plead guilty a couple of weeks ago.

Like the jingle that only needed a change of one word, it still rings true today.

"We're the corruptest little state in the union. Rhode Island! Rhode Island!"

With the exception of "the mob", has much really changed since 1991 when this video aired?

(Note: Arlene Violet appears in the story. I never knew she was referred to as "Attila the Nun", as Sam Donaldson mentions. LOL! Love Arlene!)

The part the State forgot about...How sad...

You're right. Rhode Island it seems starts in Providence and ends in Westerly.

I have interacted with Bob Billington and one or two people at the BVTC, and I can say that they are a very dedicated group, doing their best to promote tourism in the area. They are also very responsive to offers of help from volunteers like me (I am from California, have never visited RI, but will be doing so, later this spring).

After watching the movie, "Hachi: A Dog's Tale", which was filmed largely in Woonsocket, I meticulously compiled information about the various locations for the movie, obtained their Google street views and put them all together to create a "Hachi Trail" for visitors to the area. I shared this with Bob and others at BVTC and they have incorporated it in their website: (Click on links for "Hachi Trail" and "Hachi Trail Facebook" near the top of the page).

I also saw that they had already compiled a neat visitors' map at As a result of their efforts and my continuing interest, I will be visiting Woonsocket later this spring and will be the tour guide for a group of dog lovers visiting with their dogs, from NY, CT, MA, and other places in RI as well.

I don't think that any sterile ad agency can achieve what the BVTC has done. Sure, the ad companies can take in huge amounts of money and create some catchy jingles and flashy posters. But it also takes commitment and passion like the folks at BVTC (and individuals like I) have. There is simply no substitute for that. Throwing money at an ad agency is the least productive way for a state to spend its tourism dollars.