New tourism coalition wants state funding it can count on

A newly formed alliance plans to rally Tuesday in Hartford for more reliable funding of statewide tourism promotion.

The group, headed by Stephen Tagliatela, managing member of the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook, has scheduled a news conference prior to a public hearing on a Commerce Committee bill calling for establishment of a separate tourism account within the state’s General Fund.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, is interested in forming a “tourism caucus” of lawmakers whose districts are home to tourist attractions.

For veteran tourism advocates, the initiatives inspire feelings of déjà vu.

“We used to have a governor’s tourism council that worked pretty well, and funding we could count on,” Tagliatela said Monday. “It was disbanded in the mid-2000s when (Gov. M. Jodi) Rell took funding down to one dollar. She wiped us off the map of New England.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy restored tourism funding four years ago, but it has shrunk amid budget cuts the last couple of years. Currently, it stands at $8.5 million. In addition, each of three regional tourism districts receives hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

Raised Bill No. 5576 would fund a “state-wide marketing and promotion account” with a portion of the proceeds from the occupancy tax imposed on "hotels, bed and breakfast establishments and lodging houses," while applying a 10 percent occupancy tax on bed and breakfasts.

Tagliatela said such a dedicated source of funding could assure that the state has as much as $15 million a year or more to spend on tourism promotion.

Citing the state’s own statistics, he said tourism is a major driver of the economy, generating $14.5 billion a year in spending by tourists, $1.6 billion in total tax revenues, $513 million in state taxes, $345 million in local taxes, $1.8 billion in wages and 118,500 jobs.

He said travel-industry research has found that states that increased tourism funding increased their share of the tourism market, while those that reduced funding experienced immediate declines in market share.

“We should not be lumped in with all the other things that don’t have a return to them,” Tagliatela said. “We can help solve the budget crisis.”

Acknowledging that the industry's "not so good at getting our message out,” he said coalition members have been organizing for several months. Members include the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, the Connecticut Lodging Association, the Connecticut Restaurant Association, the University of New Haven and such attractions as the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex and the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.

Coalition representatives have met with the executive directors of the regional tourism districts, which focus on marketing and promotion.

“It’s a good idea, something of a step back in time,” Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said. “There have been ad hoc organizations that have been helpful in advocating for tourism funding, but it’s better when it’s legislatively authorized. They’re trying to re-establish that sort of thing.”

Dombroskas said he understood the coalition would do more than lobby state government.

“They’re looking to help support the districts,” he said.

Formica, the state senator investigating the formation of a tourism caucus, said he wants to “broaden the discussion” about tourism funding.

“Dollars everywhere are being challenged. Tourism is not alone,” he said. “We need to raise awareness about the dollars the industry generates — similar to the manufacturing caucus.”

Tourism caucus members would certainly represent districts in eastern Connecticut but also those in the Northwest Hills of Litchfield County as well as the southwestern and central parts of the state, Formica said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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