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Businesses: Local tourism districts vital

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published February 21. 2013 4:00AM   Updated February 21. 2013 3:07PM
Appropriations Committee hearing draws support for regional efforts to attract visitors

Hartford - Local tourism groups on Wednesday pleaded with legislators on the Appropriations Committee not to cut funding to tourism districts.

"The elimination of funding and the statutory authorization for regional tourism is just unacceptable in my mind," said Linda Auger, vice president and co-owner of Taylor Brooke Winery, based in Woodstock, part of the Eastern Regional Tourism District.

A handful of local businesses testified during the Appropriations Committee's public hearing, opposing the governor's budget, which would cut about $1.6 million from the three local tourism district offices. They said the districts provide support catered to the regions.

Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said earlier this week that the Eastern Regional Tourism District office would close July 1 if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget passes. The governor did propose $15 million for the state's "Still Revolutionary" tourism campaign.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said earlier Wednesday that he supported the governor's commitment to state funding because programs such as Google Analytics, which can be used to track how many Internet users visit a website, allow the state to determine quickly whether its funding has paid off, and where. He said he would not be testifying regarding the elimination of the regional tourism districts.

The state's campaign generated $161 million in tourism spending, according to the Harrison Group, a Waterbury-based research firm. The campaign brought 269,000 households to Connecticut, and each of these households spent an average of $600 per visit, according to the report.

But businesses that benefit from the regional tourism districts said state funding, while appreciated, wasn't enough.

"The district approach set up a number of years ago has created a bond, mutual respect and helped each other," said Robert Bell, president of Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. "It would be a mistake to lose this vital, hands-on, local approach."

Bell said the regional offices have created a voice for museums, shops and restaurants. The district offices also have helped bring in about 150,000 people annually from all over the world to the Essex Steam Train, he said.

The Eastern Regional Tourism District represents many businesses and attractions in the tourism industry, one of the major contributors to the state's economy, Auger said.

"My fear is that if we eliminate the regional offices, we will experience a decline in tourism, which will result in a decline in revenue to businesses and the state," she said.

Jill Fritzche, owner of Canterbury Antiques and a representative of the Canterbury Economic Development Commission, said she couldn't understand why the state would cut an area of "cash flow deposits."

"Why get rid of our income-producing assets?" she asked.

Tammi Flynn, director of marketing at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, said she also opposed eliminating the regional districts. She said she has worked with the eastern district for 14 years and while there have been budget and staff cuts and changes in the administration, the district continued to produce high-quality marketing initiatives.

The district took the lead in the partnerships that produced mystic.org and the Mystic Country Visitors Guide, which created cooperative advertising in major publications, she said.

"How could our businesses come together to produce these projects without the resources and leadership of the district," Flynn asked.

The museum's attendance has doubled since 2001, she said. Each out-of-state visitor spends about $479 in the area, she said. Based on an economic impact study, that means out-of-state museum visitors contribute about $8.6 million to the local economy, she said.

"I know that our partnership with the Eastern Regional Tourism District is part of our success," she said.

j.somers@theday.com

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