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Proposed budget would eliminate funding for regional tourism districts

By Patricia Daddona

Publication: The Day

Published February 17. 2011 4:00AM   Updated February 17. 2011 7:30AM
But centralized marketing effort would still get $15 million on statewide basis

The governor's plan to centralize state tourism marketing would eliminate all funding for three regional tourism districts, a move some tourism advocates said Wednesday they will ask lawmakers to challenge.

Though $1.9 million a year for the districts would be gone, Malloy has dedicated $15 million for statewide marketing for each of the next two fiscal years.

"The state's going to assume the central role in (state tourism) marketing, and that's going to include marketing local and regional partnerships to maximize funding," said John Casa, secretary for legislative affairs with the state Office of Policy and Management. "We think under that kind of scenario that funding for local districts would become redundant."

Although the bill that constitutes the governor's budget plan does not wipe out the districts, which are enabled by state statute, it ceases to fund them, essentially preventing them from operating, Casa said.

Recently, a regional partnership dubbed the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau formally became a subcommittee of the Eastern Regional Tourism District. Last year the bureau raised $570,000 to market the region, but three full-time district employees and a part-time worker did the actual marketing, district officials said. Before that, the bureau had operated independently as a partnership of private tourism businesses under the name the "Exit 90" group.

Several district and bureau supporters said Wednesday that elimination of the districts would put the bureau's existing and future accomplishments at risk. They pledged to appeal to lawmakers to preserve the districts.

"It takes away our partner, and we can't function without some kind of partner," said Mike Riegel, executive director of the Submarine Force Library and Museum Association, referring to the way the bureau has most recently operated.

John Markowicz, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region and vice chairman of the district, and district Executive Director Ed Dombroskas said they'd ask lawmakers to preserve the districts.

"We're disappointed that the governor's recommended budget has zeroed out regional marketing and has failed to recognize the cooperative relationship that the district has developed with the private sector over the past year," said Dombroskas. "We hope for continued dialogue with the governor and legislature to hopefully reinstate that."

But Steve Coan, chairman of the bureau, insisted in a statement that the bureau would continue to function if the districts remain unfunded, and could look to the statewide marketing money for direct support. Coan is also president and chief executive officer of Sea Research Foundation, which operates Mystic Aquarium.

"Much of what the (bureau) does is privately funded," Coan wrote. "We will seek support from the state of Connecticut for continuation of matching funds for these efforts and continuation of the many good things that the Eastern Connecticut Tourism District does, including its staffing. ... The governor appears to be in word and deed supportive of tourism, and that is a step in the right direction."

The recommendation to phase out the regional tourism districts came from a brainstorming group appointed by Malloy and led by Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Waterford, and Chandler Howard, president of Middletown-based Liberty Bank.

p.daddona@theday.com

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