Two regional councils of governments in the area are planning to join a new statewide tourism coalition, a step advocated by some local officials in recognition that tourism is an economic driver in the region.
The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments voted Wednesday to join the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, while the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments also is expected to join the group.
Stephen Tagliatela, the founder and president of the coalition, said the group was formed to bring about change and educate the General Assembly about the importance of tourism to the state's economy.
"We feel we are part of the solution to the budget crisis in Connecticut, because if they invest a dollar in tourism, they'll get 3 to 7 dollars back in tax revenue," Tagliatela, managing member of the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook, said in a phone interview Friday.
Tagliatela said the coalition, a 501(c)4 organization that plans to advocate in Hartford on March 15, wants a percentage of the state's 15 percent lodging tax to serve as a dedicated source of funding to promote tourism and market Connecticut to out-of-state residents.
He pointed out that the neighboring state of New York has allocated $55 million to market that state for tourism.
He said Connecticut's $15 million tourism budget, introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy several years ago, has been reduced to $6.4 million.
Members of the coalition come from various organizations and businesses, including Waters Edge Resort and Spa in Westbrook, the University of New Haven, Connecticut Restaurant Association and Connecticut Marine Trades Association.
In addition to the coalition, a bipartisan Tourism Caucus, created by Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, has formed in the General Assembly.
On Wednesday, the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments voted to become a coalition board member, with the conditions that the council will have a "seat at the table" and receive details of the coalition's goals in writing.
The coalition charges $250 for general membership and $1,500 for board membership.
Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons advocated for the council to join the coalition, pointing out that tourism is a huge industry for the region and provides jobs.
"I just think if this COG fails to join, it sends a message out to the rest of the state that we really are not concerned with the tourism industry in our region, and yet I think it's critically, critically important," Simmons said.
During the meeting, some members discussed that the regional council does not join advocacy groups. But, since tourism is so vital to the region, some said they would support a one-year commitment.
Some officials said the region has other needs, with Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey pointing out that the Southeast Area Transit District is underfunded.
"While I absolutely think tourism is essential and the economic dollars that come from that are vital to all of our communities, I just think it takes the COG in a different direction than I have come to know the COG to be following," she said. "I would say to you that while I think tourism is essential and they are underfunded, so is our transportation center. It's essential."
In a phone interview Friday, Ed Dombroskas, the executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District — a district that is downsizing but continuing efforts to promote tourism after its funding was cut this fiscal year — said the council's membership on the coalition is an "endorsement" that tourism is an important part of the region's economy.
Meanwhile, the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, which represents 17 towns, including Old Lyme and Lyme, is expected to vote to join the tourism coalition at its meeting next month, the council's Executive Director Samuel Gold said in a phone interview Friday.
Gold said local officials view tourism as very important to the regional and statewide economy, and cuts to funding for tourism and local amenities, like state parks and welcome centers, have hurt.
He said that the reduction of days that Gillette Castle was open this summer had a "noticeable impact" on local businesses.
While local officials want visitors to stop in the state and spend as much money and time as they can in the area, the closing of the welcome center in Westbrook with orange traffic cones gives the opposite message, he said.
"What kind of message does that give to people driving through Connecticut on I-95?" Gold asked. "It gives the message that Connecticut is closed."