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Tourism district still unable to take votes, receive state funding

The state is withholding $200,000 from the Eastern Regional Tourism District to use for current tourism marketing until the district can wrap up its affairs from the 2018-19 fiscal year and submit an audit.

Randy Fiveash, director of the state's Office of Tourism, said the district could be using the money to promote regional offerings such as the Mystic Aquarium's upcoming Northern Lights attraction.

"It's a crying shame, quite frankly," he said.

Fiveash also noted the district will have to return some of the $400,000 in state funds that went unspent in the 2018-19 fiscal year, when there was a narrow timeframe for committing the money, but because the state hasn't received a full accounting yet, he doesn't know how much.

New eastern district board member Bruce MacDonald said that "because of the organizational disarray, the state is not allocating the funds that have been approved for the district, and therefore the district can't promote the tourism business."

The board could not take any votes at its most recent meeting on Nov. 12 because it didn't have a quorum, and the same thing happened at its Sept. 6 meeting. Fiveash says a quorum is 14 people, one-third of the 41 towns the district represents.

A list of board members MacDonald provided, dated Nov. 5, shows that 11 towns were listed as not having a representative: Chaplin, Columbia, Coventry, Eastford, Franklin, Lebanon, Old Lyme, Pomfret, Scotland, Sterling and Woodstock.

Ed Dombroskas, the district's $70-an-hour consultant, said many calls had already been made to get municipal leaders to appoint representatives. MacDonald said if he were in that position, he would "get off the phone and meet face to face with the various local officials and try to convince them of how vital it is for this group to get a quorum."

Stonington board representative Chris Regan, property manager of Olde Mistick Village, added, "If you're paid to do this, you should be out there performing and getting people to these boards, and to these meetings, getting them confirmed." He said businesses have had to step forward with their own funds to make up for the lack of district spending.

But Dombroskas said he's done "everything except putting them in a headlock" to get municipal leaders to appoint people, and that he made a plea to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments last week to do so.

The agenda for the district's Nov. 12 meeting showed that if there had been a quorum, the actions taken would've included authorization of Chairwoman Rita Schmidt to sign contracts, of Dombroskas to serve as a contracted administrative coordinator for $70 an hour, and of Norwich Community Development Corp. as the district's state-mandated nonprofit partner.

These votes were taken at the September meeting before it was determined there was no quorum, rendering the votes invalid.

Dombroskas said he was paid about $18,000 for his work in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, and he's not being paid for the work he's doing now but is hopeful he will be.

The next meeting of the district is scheduled for Dec. 12. Dombroskas said he doesn't know yet where it will be, considering Foundry 66 — the home of NCDC and the location of the past two meetings — doesn't have the equipment for people to call into meetings.

New board members ask questions

In emails to Dombroskas and Schmidt, and in a conversation with The Day, MacDonald had many questions to which he hadn't received answers.

"Is there a posted schedule of regular district meetings, and if so, where can I find it?" asked MacDonald.

Dombroskas told The Day he will post the next meeting with the Secretary of the State's office and with the clerk's offices in the 41 member towns.

"Is there an annual audit of the District's books?" asked MacDonald. 

Yes. Dombroskas said the auditors "have been busy" but he needs to get them some of the records for which they have asked, and he expects to have the audit submitted by the end of December.

MacDonald also asked if there is a contract between the district and Norwich Community Development Corp., and Dombraskas said there is.

The contract, which Dombroskas provided to The Day, runs from June 25 to Dec. 30 of this year and involves the district paying $15,148 to NCDC.

MacDonald also asked Dombraskas if he had a signed contract with the district for his services and Dombraskas said there is not one.

Regan said he doesn't even know what Dombroskas' job description is, and that he never thought being on the board "would be this frustrating."

"I want to do a good job," MacDonald said. "I want to do a good job for New London, and I want to do a good job for the broader region, and I'm just hampered by a lack of information."

He was appointed to the board Oc. 7. Another person appointed between the September and November meetings was Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut President Tony Sheridan, who is representing Waterford. He was unable to make the last meeting due to a scheduling conflict.

It seems the opposite happened with City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick, a board member who was a vocal critic of district operations at the September meeting but was not notified in advance of the November meeting.

Dombroskas said that's because he and Schmidt realized the state statute establishing tourism districts does not name the City of Groton as having a representative. It says only "Groton" among the municipalities, and Groton already has a representative on the board in Schmidt. But Hedrick said he was not told this until he found out about the meeting after the fact and inquired.

"I was shocked and surprised, and wondered if it had more to do with my interaction at the first board meeting than with the strict adherence of the bylaws," he told The Day.

Schmidt told Hedrick in an email that Groton illegally has had two members on the board — one town, one city — for the past 36 years. She said the board is allowed at-large members and it would be great to have him on board once the current mess is straightened out.

Hedrick told The Day he'd "absolutely" like to be on the board even if it's not officially as a city representative, and that he wants to be part of the solution, with $400,000 at stake.

How are the other districts doing?

Dombroskas and Schmidt point to the dissolution of the districts in the three-year period without funding as the reason for ongoing issues, but Fiveash — of the state Office of Tourism — points to the central district as a model of success despite that.

Central district Chairman Don DeVivo, president of DATTCO, said his district submitted its audit in late August or early September and got $200,000 — the first two quarterly payments — in late September or early October.

A "Fun with Kids" brochure is about to print, and come April 1, a 15-second commercial promoting the region will start playing in movie theaters in Boston, Springfield and Westchester County, DeVivo said.

With the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce, the district's nonprofit partner, the district held a fall tourism summit featuring a TripAdvisor executive as keynote speaker. The district doesn't have a consultant but rather pays part of the salary of the chamber vice president for her work; Fiveash said this is "considerably less" than Dombroskas' rate.

"We went to the other two districts and said: Here is a model for you. It's a simple, simple, simple model," Fiveash said of the central district, adding, "It's not rocket science."

In the western district, Chairman Dan Bolognani said via email the audit is underway and "should be completed shortly."

Fiveash said the western district, which has not received any funding, is "not anywhere close to getting their (fiscal year) 2020 contract either."

But he said at least the eastern district sent its marketing materials for the last fiscal year to the state for approval while the western district did not, which he called "a big, big issue and a big no-no."

e.moser@theday.com

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