Legislators give recommendations for fixing issues in tourism districts

Hartford — With two of the state's three tourism districts working to "cure" their breaches of contract with the Connecticut Office of Tourism, legislators in the Arts, Culture and Tourism Caucus are providing recommendations to improve the efficiency of tourism marketing.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, reached out to caucus Chairman Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, shortly before Christmas to request a hearing on the issues, which was held Tuesday afternoon.

"If we're going to have to make any legislative changes, we have to get the documents in shortly," Osten said toward the beginning of the meeting.

One of her suggestions is allowing the board for each of the three districts — eastern, central and western — to include regional representatives for a few towns, rather than one for each town.

Formica said perhaps three small towns might want to send one representative but this should be done by option and not directive. He cited Putnam’s various antique dealers as an example of tourism offerings in smaller towns.

Osten asked Office of Tourism Director Randy Fiveash if he'd be averse to such regionalization. Fiveash said he thought it was a "terrific idea."

This issue came up because the Eastern Regional Tourism District did not meet the state's definition of a quorum at two of its meetings in 2019, and the district still has 10 of its 42 towns without representation.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, recommended allowing flexibility so that a town could send a different representative to a meeting than the one the town appointed, if the appointee can't make it.

"Some of these first selectmen just can't make a meeting, and a proxy or a substitute, an alternate, would be good," said Windham Economic Development Director Jim Bellano, interim director of the eastern district.

The issues facing the tourism districts stem from former Gov. Dannel Malloy eliminating their funding for three years. This meant that the organizations essentially dissolved, though the board of the central district kept meeting.

The state budget for last fiscal year included $400,000 for each district, but the districts didn't get their funding until a month or two before the year ended, meaning they scrambled to spend the money.

For not submitting required documentation to the state, and other issues, the state sent breach-of-contract notices to the western district in November and eastern district in December. But Fiveash said Tuesday he was "really happy and really proud" of what the districts have done since to rectify the issues.

Osten said the legislature would be looking to roll over the money districts did not spend in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019; an estimated $162,000 went unspent in the eastern district.

She asked if Fiveash would oppose that, but Fiveash said he already consulted with legal staff in the Department of Economic and Community Development and will allow the districts to spend that money.

Bellano told The Day after the meeting that the leftover money will be used to pay administrative coordinator Ed Dombroskas, pay its auditor, do more digital advertising and distribute some brochures, per the original plan.

The eastern district submitted its annual audit to the state on Monday. Bellano said the board met its extended deadline for providing other documents and is waiting to hear if the state has accepted the solutions. The interim executive committee next meets on Feb. 6 and the full board on Feb. 13.

Also at the meeting Tuesday, Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, asked about how the districts could engage Yale and other universities in tourism advocacy. Another tourism topic that came up was the reopened welcome centers on the highway, and how the districts could work with them.

Closing out the meeting, Formica said he would be happy to put aside a Saturday for a half-day or full-day seminar on the tourism districts, to address what needs to be done "before the season comes upon us."

The chairman of the board for the central district, which submitted its audit for last fiscal year months ago and already has $300,000 in funding for the current fiscal year, gave a plea for more consistent funding.

"A lot of what we do in tourism is built on momentum, and we had that momentum going on, and that's why it's important for you guys to keep the funding coming, because when you stop, it's like a train," Don DeVivo said. "It takes a while to get started again."

e.moser@theday.com

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