State budget cuts gut Western Connecticut Convention & Visitors Bureau

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Budget cutting is one thing at the state level these days, but for Dan Bolognani, chairman of the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau, it’s beyond ridiculous.

“We were certain that we would be in for additional cuts to our budget, just like every other state agency and program,” he said. “But to wake up on July 1 and find out we were losing 100 percent of our budget … we just weren’t ready for that.”

Gone is the bureau’s $420,000 allocation from the state, leaving it with the roughly $80,000 it makes from donations and, primarily, from selling ads in its “Unwind” brochure and on its website. “There’s no way that’s enough for us to sustain ourselves,” he said.

Gone too are the bureau’s four employees, laid off as of July 15. While the bureau is still eking out an existence by providing marketing and advertising promoting tourism around the region using data accumulated through the spring, there is no manpower left to provide updates and list new events, much less provide the assistance to the small businesses “that are not big enough to be players on a statewide or even regional basis,” Bolognani said.

“Those are the lodging establishments, restaurants and smaller attractions that rely on the bureau to be their marketing department,” he explained. “We assist them in a number of ways, including serving as an intermediary to the State Office of Tourism. We’re here to provide the sort of local ‘boots on the ground’ services that the Connecticut Office of Tourism doesn’t have the manpower for — it’s not their job and it shouldn’t be their job.”

That the elimination of funds coincides with the tourism industry’s peak season certainly doesn’t help matters, he added.

“This is just devastating,” said state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-Old Greenwich) when informed of the situation. “It is incumbent upon us to press the point, which is the old business adage: You have to spend money to make money. The money spent (on promoting tourism) has produced a significant return for taxpayers.”

A member of the General Assembly’s Tourism Caucus, Camillo said that tourism represents a 3-to-1 rate of return on dollars spent. “I heard it was 7-to-1 about four years ago, and have been told it was once 25- to 30-1.”

The caucus was formed in April and is co-chaired by state Sen. Paul Formica (R-East Lyme) and Rep. Diana Urban (D-North Stonington), who have been vocal about tourism’s importance to the state’s economy.

“Connecticut tourism is about jobs and economic vitality,” Formica said at the group’s inaugural meeting on April 5. “Having these open and frank discussions will help us to craft thoughtful policies which boost the state tourism industry.”

Camillo said the caucus had met recently with Office of Policy and Management (OPM) Secretary Benjamin Barnes to protest the statewide cutting of the tourism budget from $15 million to $6.5 million, as well as the additional 1 percent later cut that included the 100 percent divestiture of the Western Connecticut budget.

Barnes “didn’t provide specifics but said in words and mannerisms that he too believes that tourism money spent does have a significant return for us,” Camillo said. “He agreed with the general feeling of the caucus that it’s better to have that money spent than not.

“He hears all the time from people wanting money to be restored,” Camillo added, “but he does understand.”

“The budget passed by the General Assembly was balanced in part by granting to OPM the authority to do budget holdbacks,” noted Gian-Carl Casa, OPM’s undersecretary for legislative affairs. “Without those holdbacks the budget would not be in balance. This means we must make many difficult but necessary decisions as we work to get Connecticut back to fiscal health.

“The state provides centralized, statewide marketing and tourism services, including online resources for the public, through the Department of Economic and Community Development,” Casa continued. “Regional tourism districts augment those efforts. Local entities are free to support their regional districts if they believe such augmented services are necessary.”

But the buck won’t stop there, Camillo said.

“My take is that we need to step it up as legislators. A lot of the time if you don’t make a lot of noise, it just goes away. (Formica and Urban) are on it. We will be meeting shortly, in the next couple of weeks, to formulate further plans to work with the governor’s office to get some of those cuts restored.”

Bolognani said he hopes some sort of alternative plan can be implemented “really soon. Now is when tourists are looking for some of that local flavor, that local scene, that we can help them find.”

Bolognani said he too has calls in to discuss with both the OPM and the State Office of Tourism to “examine ways we can increase our role in statewide tourism, secure more robust private funding through marketing schemes and make the regional bureaus more efficient and effective.”

He added that he hopes such talks will take place over the next two weeks; otherwise, he said, “We will have to continue the shutting down process, closing offices and files, and putting our equipment and other materials into storage.”

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