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Problems cry out for new tourism approach

The troubles befalling the Eastern Regional Tourism District cry out for the General Assembly to reassess how state funding to promote tourism is distributed. The state senators and House members representing this tourism-rich region should lead the way.

A recent story by Day Staff Writer Erica Moser outlined how the tourism district will have to return funds that went unspent during the 2018-2019 fiscal year that ended this past June 30. Now the state is holding back $200,000 that could otherwise be spent on marketing this year because the district never completed the paperwork for last fiscal year, including submission of an audit.

Tourism district business does not get done at meetings for lack of quorums. Many towns that are supposed to be served by the district have assigned no representatives to its board. New board members complain about a lack of access to basic information.

Otherwise, the district is performing perfectly. But, seriously, there has got to be a better way of doing this. The tourism industry is too important to our region to squander opportunities to promote it.

The General Assembly divides the state into three tourism districts to promote their local attractions — Eastern, Central and Western.

According to Randy Fiveash, director of the state’s Office of Tourism, two out of the three districts have not provided the necessary accounting concerning the past use of state grants to get their appropriations for the current fiscal year. Only the Central Regional Tourism District submitted an audit and other required documentation and received its $200,000, representing the first two quarterly payments.

Fiveash has advised the other two districts to take a look at how the Central Tourism District is getting it done.

The current configuration seems inherently unwieldly. In eastern Connecticut the district sprawls across 41 towns, each of which is supposed to have a representative on the board. Eleven towns have not assigned one. Meetings are poorly attended, even by towns with representatives. The vacancy and poor attendance make it hard to get the necessary quorums and get business done.

Ed Drombrokas, who directs the district’s affairs as a $70-an-hour consultant — when he can land the state funding — basically told Moser he is doing the best he can and that he cannot force towns to assign a representative to the district board.

Drombrokas’ own status is troublingly informal. He has no contract with the district describing his services and his position has no job description.

Notably, the Central district utilizes the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce as a partner, paying a portion of the chamber’s vice president for her work on tourism issues. In her role as executive director of the tourism district, Middlesex chamber Vice President Johanna Bond can utilize the chamber’s support structure to help in communication and organizing.

The Eastern District Tourism District has its working relationship with the Norwich Community Development Corporation. A fine organization, but not a regional one — just look at the name.

The obvious group to help spearhead tourism promotion in the eastern one-third of the state, using state dollars, would be the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. But Drombrokas and the chamber have a history, and not a good one, tied to past disputes over the issue of who should oversee tourism.

The legislature, it would seem to us, could tweak the regulations requiring representatives from every town if an organization, such as the chamber, could demonstrate in grant applications that it already has regional representation.

However this gets fixed, it is clear it needs fixing. Given the organizational challenges, it is hard to imagine the Eastern Regional Tourism District in its current configuration getting the job done well.

As Fiveash noted in his interview with The Day, had the district provided the necessary documentation to his office it could be utilizing grant money to promote the upcoming Northern Lights attraction at the Mystic Aquarium, just to note one example. There are plenty of activities to persuade people from elsewhere in the state, and from neighboring states, to visit the region during the holidays. But they have to know about them.

“It’s a crying shame,” Fiveash said.

Indeed it is.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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