Tourism
11:26 am
Tue March 1, 2011

Fight Brews Over Tourism Dollars

Tourism is vital industry for Connecticut, generating some $14 billion in visitor spending each year. Small businesses are the mainstay of the sector. But as WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports, many are worried about the future.

Governor Dannel Malloy says he gets it on tourism.

“We’re going to rethink in its entirety our approach to tourism—we’re going to work where partnerships work and we’re not going to carry partnerships that don’t work.”

And the Governor wants to restore the state’s marketing budget for tourism, allocating $15 million where last year the Rell administration gave one dollar.

“I do feel sometimes that I’m lost—I’m left alone.”

That solitary dollar was symbolic of neglect to small tourism businesses like the Bee and Thistle Inn in Old Lyme, owned and run by Linnea Rufo.

“We have this beautiful historic building, on these beautiful grounds in a beautiful town. We have great staff, great chef, beautiful restaurant—we don’t have volume. And that’s what we need help with.”

She says Connecticut has all the assets it needs to be a world-class tourist destination. But it can’t be left to small businesses to mount the marketing effort. It has to be done on a more strategic level.

“A lot of people drive 95---I get stuck in traffic a lot—and I don’t think they know what they can do when they get off any given exit.”

That’s echoed by Bob Bell, the President of the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat attraction. He says small tourism businesses can’t survive all alone.

“I’m a part of a cooperative called Family Fun Mystic. There’s four attractions that got together, and we’ve all worked together, and all of our attractions last year were up 8 percent, where others were down, so that cooperative basis really does work.”

“The backbone of tourism is made up by small businesses. Restaurants, small bed and breakfasts, various entertainment outlets.”

Tony Sheridan is President of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. He’s one of the moving forces behind an effort to reorganize how tourism is promoted in the state. He wants to see the three remaining tourism districts eliminated and marketing dollars centralized at the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“Each town by legislation is allowed to have a member on the district board, and these are unwieldy, very large boards and many times people are appointed who do not have a keen interest or for that matter understand tourism.”

The plan puts Sheridan in conflict with the rather successful tourism district in his own backyard, The Eastern district, in partnership with the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau managed to leverage almost half a million dollars in private money last year to mount its own marketing campaign. But the district’s budget has been zeroed out in Governor’s budget proposal, which centralizes all marketing cash at the state level. Ed Dombroskas is regional director of the tourism district.

“We hope that the Governor will recognize the fact that the leveraging of dollar is exactly what we need to do with public-private funds, and will reinstate money to have the regional tourism district operation survive and thrive.”

Joyce Olsen Reznikoff owns Olde Mistick Village, which hosts more than 40 small retail businesses. She says there’s one other flaw in the Governor’s plan.

“Our problem right now—he’s got a budget in there that goes starting July 1. If we want this year to be effective, and we need it to be effective, we have got to have some money now.”

By the state’s own accounting, some 170,000 jobs in Connecticut directly reliant on tourism. While businesses are glad to see the state’s marketing budget restored, they’re waiting to see what direction the Governor will take for this vital industry.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.