Lamont, Griebel agree state needs to spend more on tourism
Hartford — Two candidates for governor, Democrat Ned Lamont and independent Oz Griebel, spouted support for tourism funding at a forum Wednesday, each promising to be Connecticut’s biggest cheerleader, if elected.
But they were far from eager to commit to a specific funding level.
Lamont, Griebel and state Sen. Joe Markley, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, participated in the event, which was organized by the Connecticut Lodging Association and held at the Connecticut Convention Center. Each candidate took a turn on stage with moderator Michael Price, chairman of the Connecticut Culture and Tourism Advisory Committee.
Bob Stefanowski, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, was a no-show.
State tourism groups have been lobbying lawmakers with increasing intensity in recent years as funding for statewide marketing steadily has dwindled from the $15 million that outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivered upon taking office eight years ago. The current state budget only allocates $4.1 million for the cause.
“As you know, tourism is underfunded,” Price said. “And it’s tied into funding for arts, culture and historic preservation,” areas that benefited from another $10 million in state funding as recently as 2008.
“Would you commit to those numbers?” Price asked Griebel, referring to $15 million for tourism and $10 million for the arts.
The independent candidate said he would, then immediately tempered his response by calling attention to the estimated $4.6 billion deficit that awaits the new governor.
“The first (two-year) budget must do as little harm as possible ... to municipalities,” Griebel said. “We need to have a discussion (about tourism funding).”
He said he would take an active role in such talks, serving as “the chief marketing officer of the state.”
“As governor, I will be the No. 1 champion for this state,” said Lamont, who vowed to spend at least as much on tourism promotion as Rhode Island, which currently outspends Connecticut.
“I can’t promise you a big bump the first year,” he added.
Both Griebel and Lamont said they would support committing a greater share of the revenue generated by the state’s highest-in-the-nation hotel room tax to tourism. Markley, however, called the tax “burdensome” and said the state should stop “coupling” a particular tax with a particular purpose.
“I’d rather see that tax reduced,” Markley said. “We need to figure out how much we need to fund culture and tourism and not worry where it’s coming from.”
The forum also focused on funding for transportation, which affects tourism. Both Lamont and Griebel said they favored electronic tolls to generate revenue for infrastructure improvements, an approach Markley opposed.
About two dozen employees of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun traveled to the forum to stress the importance of preserving jobs at the southeastern Connecticut facilities, which are threatened by growing competition. A new casino opened in August in Springfield, Mass., and another is scheduled to open near Boston in 2019. Massachusetts officials are considering whether to open bidding on a third casino in the southeastern portion of the state.
In addition, proponents of a Bridgeport casino are expected to renew their push when the Connecticut legislature convenes next year.
John Pearson of Niantic, a table-games dealer who’s been at Mohegan Sun for 22 years, said MGM Springfield has not had a noticeable impact on Mohegan Sun’s business. He said it’s understood, however, that once the full array of Massachusetts casinos is open, layoffs at Mohegan Sun could be “in the thousands.”
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