Chamber of Commerce asked to back regional tourism district

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO A map of Shelter Island produced by the Chamber of Commerce and designed by Designed by Louise O’Regan Clark of Shelter Island Graphics.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO A map of Shelter Island produced by the Chamber of Commerce and designed by Designed by Louise O’Regan Clark of Shelter Island Graphics.

Shelter Island could benefit substantially if it joins the other East End towns in backing a proposal to form a state-sanctioned regional tourism marketing district, members of the Island’s Chamber of Commerce were told last week.

Bryan DeLuca and Janine Nebons, co-founders of the non-profit East End Tourism Alliance (EETA), were the featured speakers at the chamber’s annual membership meeting at The Flying Goat on May 24. Mr. DeLuca is executive director of the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center and the Hyatt Place in Riverhead. Ms. Nebons is general manager of the Tanger Outlets in Riverhead.

They invited the chamber and its individual members to help advocate for the passage of a bill that would form the “Peconic Region Tourism Marketing District.”

Legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), is on hold until it receives official support from the governing bodies of the five East End towns, Mr. DeLuca said. It would create the first such district in New York and is modeled on laws in other states that have been successful in promoting tourism at a regional level, he said.

Currently, state grants are the main source of funds for East End tourism but they often require prohibitive matching funds from local municipalities that keep them out of the reach of Shelter Island businesses.

“The way New York State is set up, in order to get funding, you have to spend all of the money before they start reimbursing you,” Ms. Nebons said. “So small organizations like you have on Shelter Island, they really just shut you out of the process.”

Another source, the Suffolk County 3 percent accommodation tax collected by commercial hotels, inns and bed and breakfast establishments, and private operators of short-term rentals, brings in about $10 million per year, Mr. DeLuca said, noting that Shelter Island contributed $156,000 in 2015. But much of that money is spent in the western part of the county, he said.

In a regional tourism district, funds that are collected locally would be spent locally on “programs and activities designed to attract visitors to the district,” the proposed law states. Mr. DeLuca said his organization has estimated that if a $1 per occupied night bed fee were enacted in the proposed district, Shelter Island could raise enough funds to retain $22,000 a year to promote tourism here.

The EETA — where Shelter Island is represented by Kim Folks, the community outreach coordinator at Sylvester Manor —  will be working in coming months with local chambers of commerce, businesses and other interested entities in advocating for passage of the bill, he said.

“I can assure you, it is going to be a heavy lift,” Mr. DeLuca said, of getting support for legislation from around the state that would primarily benefit the East End.

Linda Eklund, owner of the Ram’s Head Inn, questioned whether the Island would really get its fair share of new revenues, noting that other regional initiatives, such as bus loops sponsored by the EETA on either fork provided no direct benefit here.

“My big concern is that now there may be an additional tax that’s going to be great for the North Fork and great for the South Fork, but that Shelter Island will be ‘No Man’s Land’ again,” she said.

Ms. Nebons said that in early talks in the five East End towns she has found “for the most part, everybody likes it because the money is staying in our region.”