Tourism professionals have warned that eliminating funding for Connecticut’s regional tourism districts risks hurting the state’s economy.
Legislators held a hearing Friday to examine a last-minute budget cut, which the governor’s office made last week, just before the start of the new fiscal year. The tourism district offices, which manage marketing for local businesses, said they’ll have to go out of business by mid-summer if state funding isn’t restored.
Governor Dannel Malloy’s budget chief, Ben Barnes, told the lawmakers he had little choice given the state’s fiscal condition.
“I don’t want to defend that this is something we wanted to do, or that we would do if we had the resources to avoid it,” Barnes said. “We did it because we felt that the most effective way for us to spend money on promoting tourism was through a centralized effort.”
But Barnes offered a small chance of reprieve, saying he was willing to listen to a plan for an alternative arrangement.
The Eastern Regional Tourism district, which handles marketing for the state’s busiest tourism region around Mystic, says state funding represents 85 percent of its financial support.
Representative Diana Urban, whose district is in southeastern Connecticut, praised her local tourism office for its effectiveness.
“I am very big on data-driven decision making,” she said. “When I talk to my Eastern Regional Tourism District, and I say what’s going on, they’ll give me tons of data for how what they are doing is impacting eastern Connecticut.”
Supporters of each of the three tourism districts spoke out against the funding cut.
“Layoff notices have gone out and it’s a critical situation,” said Dan Bolognani of the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We understand cuts need to be taken across the board for everybody. A 100 percent cut seems unreasonable for this program.”
“I have to tell you, as a B and B owner, we would not be here if it were not for the Central Regional Tourism District,” said Jeffrey Muthersbaugh, who owns Nehemiah Brainerd House Bed and Breakfast in Haddam. “They’re reaching out, they’re working with the businesses in the community.”
Ed Dombroskas heads up the Eastern Regional Tourism District, which markets the area as Mystic Country. He said the recent introduction of a website specific to the district has boosted inquiries from 12,000 a month, to 53,000 a month. Now he said, his office is faced with the task of winding down its activities.
“Yes, we are faced with an imminent demise,” he told the hearing. “The real truth of it is, is that Connecticut is a great place to visit, but it doesn’t happen on its own.”
He said large destinations like the Mystic Aquarium and the casinos will be able to generate business, but the smaller businesses like restaurants and bed and breakfasts, that constitute the major fabric of the tourism industry, will suffer.