State wants grants to fuel tourism promotion

Mystic - Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to consolidate tourism promotion efforts seeks to encourage public-private partnerships to compete for grants.

The grants - representing about 10 percent of the $15 million the governor has proposed spending on tourism in each of the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years - would be distributed by the state Office of Tourism, Randy Fiveash, the office's director, told tourism operators Wednesday at a meeting at the Hilton Mystic hotel.

Malloy's plan to combine statewide and regional tourism promotion could spell the end of the three existing regional tourism districts, including the one that markets eastern Connecticut.

An outline of the plan indicates the districts or their staff would be able to apply for the grants, "as can other organizations not currently receiving funding. ... Significant weight will be given to proposals that include private partners, and private dollars, that leverage public funds."

Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said Fiveash's presentation took him by surprise. He said the district has been trying to get a meeting with the state tourism office for the last 18 months.

"I'm surprised they would put out such a plan for funding regional marketing when they haven't used the resources we have in place," Dombroskas said.

Under the plan, any marketing efforts planned and funded by the existing tourism districts for the summer and fall of 2013 would be allowed to continue. The districts, currently facing shutdowns as early as July 1, could continue to operate until the end of the year.

The boards that now govern the regional districts would be replaced by the Connecticut Tourism Advisory Council, an arm of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. Regional subcommittees of the council would be formed.

The plan also calls for a focus on "branding opportunities" in five regional tourism destinations currently promoted by the state as well as a sixth, northeastern Connecticut's "Quiet Corner," which is now part of the Eastern Regional Tourism District's "Mystic Country." The other existing regional brands are "Connecticut River Valley," "Greater New Haven," "Fairfield County" and "Litchfield Hills."

Fiveash and others from his office spoke Wednesday about the success of the statewide "Still Revolutionary" marketing campaign, which has generated an estimated $161 million in tourism spending, according to a research firm's study.

The $15 million the state invested in tourism promotion in fiscal 2012 has been more than offset by the tax revenue generated by tourists' spending, Fiveash said.

Tourism funding for fiscal 2013, originally set at another $15 million, has been cut to less than $9.5 million. Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of The Waterford Group, owners of hotel and gaming properties, said the reduction in funding has robbed the statewide tourism campaign of some of its momentum.

He called for those at the meeting to "keep their legislators accountable" by urging them to support the governor's tourism budget.

"State spending on tourism is not an expense, though some legislators think it is," Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, added. "It's an investment. … To cut it would be penny wise and pound foolish."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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