Advocates want 'cabinet-level' official to oversee state tourism promotion

Hartford — Frustrated by shrinking support for statewide tourism promotion, tourism advocates are preparing to push for the creation of a "cabinet-level" position to oversee what Connecticut considers to be “a $4-billion-a-year business.”

Such a post should be filled by someone who’s appointed by and reports to the governor, said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, who addressed tourism operators, state officials and lawmakers Wednesday during an event at the Legislative Office Building.

A scheduled meeting of the legislature’s 40-member tourism caucus, which was to follow “Tourism Advocacy Day,” was canceled due to scheduling conflicts with the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Sheridan said a volunteer board should be appointed to advise the cabinet-level tourism czar and that the state should fund tourism promotion through a dedicated source such as a percentage of the revenue generated by the hotel room occupancy tax. He said Stephen Tagliatela, president of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, has been instrumental in developing such a proposal.

The coalition likely will pitch the plan to the new governor who’s elected in November, Sheridan said.

With the legislative session winding down, tourism officials face a 2018-19 budget that allocates $4.1 million for statewide tourism promotion and the statutory elimination of the state’s three regional tourism districts, which have not been funded since the end of the last fiscal year. The current budget included $6.4 million for statewide promotion, less than half the amount budgeted five years earlier.

“We’re up against $107 million worth of competition,” Sheridan said, referring to the total funding invested in tourism promotion by the nearby states of New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey. “We’re in a bad spot right now. What do we do? If we don’t find a way to take this challenge on, it’s going to get worse.”

Randy Fiveash, director of the state Office of Tourism, part of the Department of Economic and Community Development, noted that hotel occupancy rates in Connecticut have begun lagging those in other states and that travelers’ perceptions of Connecticut have been slipping. The number of survey respondents describing the state as “a place to visit” declined from 50 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2017.

Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, acknowledged that a bill that would eliminate statutory authority for the regional districts is pending before the legislature. He said the local district’s office still is operating “minimally” with volunteers, including himself.

“Among the smaller (tourism) entities, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction out there, a feeling that it’s everyone for themselves,” said Dombroskas, who did not attend Wednesday’s event. “There needs to be more discussion about how we go forward. Funding for statewide marketing is just one brick in a very big wall.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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