New state panel aims to shift Connecticut tourism industry from ‘nice’ to ‘wonderful’
MIDDLETOWN — Bolstering tourism in a cohesive way was the focus Tuesday as the state speaker of the House announced the formation of a committee that would create a campaign to encourage visitors from throughout the region to spend their dollars in Connecticut.
State Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, was joined by industry leaders from around the state at the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce in Middletown — including representatives from various industries such as transportation, lodging and cultural destinations. Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Regional Tourism District; Jeffry Muthersbaugh, owner of the Nehemiah Brainerd B&B in Haddam; Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo Director Gregg Dancho, and Don Devivo, president of Middletown-based Dattco transportation were among those who spoke about the initiative.
Once in place, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism will conduct meetings and hearings throughout the state in the coming months to listen and seek input from the public, businesses and institutions. The committee will comprise various sectors of the travel industry, including convention and event planners, campgrounds, transportation, lodging, parks, cultural organizations, agritourism, marine trades and retail.
A robust tourism industry will boost state coffers, create new jobs, and bolster businesses big and small, officials said.
“We turn on the TV and see ‘come to Michigan, ‘come to New Jersey,’ but we don’t see ‘come to Connecticut,’” Aresimowicz said.
Other state initiatives, such as encouraging people to take a ‘staycation’ a number of years ago by visiting attractions as a day, overnight or weekend jaunt, had limited results.
“Given the state budgets over the past several years, they’ve been able to figure out a way to do more with less. Getting in the room, taking all the revenue sources, putting them on the table, and talking about what’s the best way to spend those dollars is actually going to save us money in the long run,” Aresimowicz said.
“Right now, without an overall comprehensive strategy, we’re just throwing money at the issue and we’re not doing it in a way that makes sense,” he said.
Tourism in Connecticut is a $14.7 billion industry, supporting nearly 83,000 jobs and producing $1.7 billion in total tax revenue, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The questions Tuesday were about how much the state needs to devote to a campaign, how to use those dollars wisely, and finding innovative ways to boost the state’s economy through tourism.
The committee will make recommendations to the legislature.
“The problem is, you’ve got all these different constituencies: historical preservation, the arts community, lodging, restaurants and attractions — everybody’s up at the Capitol fighting for money with a very limited budget,” Muthersbaugh said. “Eight years ago, (Gov. Dannel P.) Malloy pledged $15 million for tourism, but it was just an arbitrary number and that only lasted a year. It’s gone down gradually ever since.”
Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Regional Tourism District, said the last time the state undertook such a campaign was 28 years ago under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker. “It was the first time tourism was taken seriously as an economic development tool. But things are different now. With the changing times, we need to change our thinking and strategic approach.”
Middlesex Chamber President Larry McHugh said the initiative has been batted around since 2016. He and Muthersbaugh met about two years ago after the inn owner spoke about challenges facing the industry following a legislative breakfast held by the chamber.
“Tourism was in the back seat of the car, and we have to get in the front seat, and we have to drive the car economically for the state of Connecticut. We got in the front seat, I think we’re more toward the middle of the back right now. We’ve got to get back in the front to understand the importance of tourism, the dollars it creates, the jobs it creates, and all the activity it [generates],” McHugh said.
Arts and culture would be a key component to the plan, said Aresimowicz, who, while a state representative for the 30th District, turned the historic Gura Building on Main Street in Southington into a Community Cultural Arts Center. A $500,000 grant helped convert the facility into a teaching, exhibiting and performing arts space.
“It was an old town building that was almost forgotten,” he said. “It’s really drawing people into downtown Southington, so I’ve seen it on the micro level. Now the question is can we do it on a macro level.”
About a decade ago, when Dancho was on state tourism council, a study was conducted to determine the answers to several important questions, including, “What do we think about Connecticut in a tourism-type of way? The envelope came back, we were all excited about what that word was going to be: ‘It’s nice.’
“That is the worst word you could ever have,” he said. “What a... thing to say, because it wasn’t ‘wonderful,’ it wasn’t ‘terrible.’ It was ‘nice.’
“We’ve been nice for a long time. I think it’s time to get away from being nice and start being really proactive in tourism in the state of Connecticut,” Dancho said.
For information, visit ctvisit.com.