State budget restores funding for regional tourism districts — for now

Tourism advocates made out all right in the better-late-than-never state budget Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a couple of weeks ago — provided it holds up.

Word that the spending plan already is spilling red ink has some wondering, though.

“When I saw that, my blood ran a little cold,” Ed Dombroskas, a longtime champion of eastern Connecticut tourism, said Tuesday of reports that the state budget for the current fiscal year is running a deficit of more than $178 million.

Dombroskas had been heartened by the budget’s restoration of funding for the state’s three regional tourism districts, including the one serving eastern Connecticut, which he’s headed since 2009. The districts were stripped of state funding at the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, leaving them in limbo for the last 16 months.

Though the newly adopted budget includes $400,000 for each of the districts in 2017-18 and 2018-19, none of the money has been disbursed. Some are less than confident it ever will be.

“We probably won’t see any of it until the first of the year,” Dombroskas said. “The governor still has the authority to make decisions that could affect it.”

Amid the uncertainty, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut has no choice but to “push ahead” with its efforts to “rebrand” the region for marketing purposes, said Tony Sheridan, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer.

“We can’t sit around waiting to see if they have funding,” he said, referring to the districts. “If they do get money and they’re back in action, we’ll work with them.”

Andy Wood, a Mystic Aquarium executive who chairs the chamber’s Greater Mystic Tourism Marketing Committee, said he sees refunding of the districts and the chamber’s rebranding efforts as “complementary” developments.

“We can pick up the conversation with the districts about how we shape our message,” he said.

In addition to the $1.2 million for the three regional tourism districts, the state budget also includes more than $6.4 million for statewide tourism marketing in 2017-18 and $4.1 million for the same purpose in 2018-19.

Almost all of the marketing money is spent on advertising Connecticut’s appeal throughout the Northeast and via digital media, according to Tim Sullivan, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which includes the Office of Tourism. The DECD's budget also includes separate appropriations for a variety of cultural and tourism-related organizations and events, examples of which include $29,000 for the Litchfield Jazz Festival and $322,397 for Mystic Aquarium.

Sheridan said he believes the money allocated to the regional districts would be better spent on statewide marketing.

“The (eastern) district went without money for a year and a half and when you talk to vendors, they don’t seem to have missed it,” he said.

In preparing the two-year budget the governor signed, lawmakers adopted a plan to fund “culture and tourism” in 2018-19 with 10 percent of the revenue generated by the state’s hotel room occupancy tax. That revenue, which typically amounts to around $120 million, would result in a fund of about $12 million, Sullivan said.

Members of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, an alliance of representatives of the tourism industry, have pushed in recent years for such an approach to funding tourism.

In addition to the hotel occupancy tax, another source of funding eventually could be tapped to help fund tourism. The bill authorizing a third casino in the state calls for 10 percent of the proposed facility’s table-games revenue to be dedicated to tourism. Sullivan said such revenue would be directed to the Culture and Tourism Fund.

Funding for statewide tourism peaked at $15 million in 2011-12.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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