Coalition pushes for boost in tourism funding

The Connecticut Tourism Council is pushing for a sustainable source of funding to market tourism in Connecticut and asking the state to restore hotel occupancy tax funding, a move that would increase the tourism budget to $22 million from the current $6.4 million.

Amid budget woes, it argues that tourism spending is an investment rather than an expense, citing common research that every dollar spent yields three dollars back to the state.

As an example, Valley Railroad Co. President Kevin Dodd questioned where patrons to the forthcoming casino in East Windsor will come from if there isn't sufficient investment in tourism.

"You're building this cherry pie, so to speak, and you're just taking the cherries out of this one to add to another pie, so you've got a flatter, less appealing pie," he said. "Bring in more people because you're advertising and everything, all boats rise on the tides, so to speak, so the state really has to step up as a partner."

Dodd, Frank Burns and David Quinn spoke to The Day's editorial board on Wednesday about the importance of investing in tourism. Burns is a consultant for the coalition who commutes between his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Old Saybrook. Quinn is the president of the Regan Communications company Quinn & Hary and a member of the coalition.

The Connecticut Tourism Coalition was founded in March 2016 and has grown to 140 members.

Tourism spending rose to $15 million when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office but is now down to $6.4 million, Burns said. Malloy's proposed budget has it at $8.3 million, while the respective proposals for the Senate Republicans and House Republicans are $12.8 million and $9.5 million.

House Democrats have proposed increasing the occupancy tax from 15 to 16 percent, with the additional money going to tourism.

The coalition is asking the state to return to the promise made in 2010 to put funds from an occupancy tax increase into tourism. That tax was raised from 12 to 15 percent; the additional 3 percent was worth $15 million then and would be worth $22 million now.

Originally that revenue was earmarked for tourism promotion, but the state has since diverted it to other uses.

Burns spoke of how tourism spending dwindled in New York State but the emptiness around Times Square following 9/11 was a wake-up call. That state's tourism budget is up to $69.5 million for the current fiscal year.

With more money for tourism promotion in Connecticut, Quinn would like to see television campaigns. He noted that neighboring states use their tourism dollars to dive into Connecticut markets, considering it's less expensive to advertise in Hartford.

Burns commented, "I'm from New York, and if you ask a typical New Yorker, 'What's Connecticut?' they'll tell you: Fairfield County should be the sixth borough of New York, Yale is New Haven, Hartford's the capital, Mystic's the tourist attraction and you've got the two casinos, and that's the state of Connecticut."

But he said the state has much more to offer and called the Connecticut coastline "a well-kept secret."

"It's almost hard to find a business, or an industry, that's not touched in some way by tourism," Dodd said. "I jokingly tell people, even when we have a slip and fall, our attorney makes money."

Dodd, Burns and Quinn have been talking to state governmental officials — and to gubernatorial candidates, and to anyone who will give them 20 minutes — to get out their message.

Along with wanting 3 percent of the lodging tax revenue to be used for tourism promotion, their goals include establishing a 15-member State Tourism Advisory Committee and creating a commissioner of tourism for Connecticut, who will report directly to the governor.

"There's a lot of legislators, people who just don't get it, and they think that advertising tourism is superfluous, it's goodwill," Dodd said. "It's not goodwill; it's not superfluous. It is bringing in people from out of the state to enjoy what Connecticut has to offer and not just driving through on their way to Rhode Island or Massachusetts."

e.moser@theday.com

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