NORWICH — The Eastern Regional Tourism District board voted on Friday to overhaul district procedures, and add new leadership, in an effort to resolve a breach of contract with the Connecticut Office of Tourism that threatens access to $400,00 in state funding for fiscal year 2019-20, and $160,000 in funding leftover from 2018-19.
“Three years ago we were knocked out of business. Now we’re starting all over again, and nobody knows nothing about what the hell is going to happen,” said former State Senator Pete Connair, who represents East Lyme on the tourism board. “It’ll take more than twelve meetings a year to make this work. We’re not just going back into business. It’s a whole new kind of business.”
Connair chaired a special working group of the committee, meeting three times over the holidays, to develop a recommendation for the full board on resolving a breach of contract with the state. A December 6 letter by Connecticut Office of Tourism Director Randy Fiveash notified the board of the breach — that the district had failed to follow state guidelines and mismanaged $400,000 of funding provided by the state in spring 2019.
This funding, part of a two-year state budget passed by the Connecticut General Assembly in 2019, came after previous budgets since 2016 under then-Governor Dannel Malloy had defunded the state’s three tourism districts, leaving them effectively defunct nearly three years.
At the Friday meeting, held at the offices of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments in Norwich, the tourism board voted to submit to the state records of 2018-19 expenditures, a timeline for submitting a 2019 audit, copies of contracts and project descriptions with all paid vendors, and an action plan for selecting a nonprofit partner to help promote tourism.
The board also approved an interim executive committee to serve until regular elections, required by the district’s bylaws, in June.
The nine members of this interim committee are James Bellano of Windham, Robert Boissevain of North Stonington, Jill Fritzche of Canterbury, Tracy Hanson of Voluntown, Gina Kunst of Colchester, Bruce MacDonald of New London, Tyra Penn-Gesek of Thompson, Chris Reagan of Stonington, and Stephen Gencarella for the Connecticut Trails Council.
Fiveash, who attended Friday’s meeting, told the board that he and the rest of the tourism office would like to see the leftover $160,000 returned to the district, but that first the district would need to document its spending and resolve the breach of contract.
Fiveash said that he would have to consult with the tourism office’s “legal folks” to determine whether the $160,000 could still be disbursed, and the district would have to spend or commit that money before making use of the fiscal year 2019-20 appropriation.
“If we can do it we’re going to do it, if we can’t we won’t. It is our intention to get us much money into there as we can. The problem is that the money was not spent and it was not committed,” Fiveash said. “So you have to say [to resolve the breach] that you’re going to do that.”
More changes may come
Board Chair Rita Schmidt, who represents Groton and was elected in 2016, said in an interview after Friday’s meeting that the board’s nominating committee is expected to recommend officers to the tourism board in the next few weeks.
The board also approved a resolution informing the state office that a subcommittee has been tasked with recommending changes to board bylaws to comply with state regulations. Those recommendations are expected before a March meeting of the full board.
Friday’s meeting was tense at times, with board members arguing that the current leadership hadn’t gone far enough in its reforms. Tony Sheridan, President & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, representing Waterford, motioned to replace current chair Schmidt with two interim co-chairs who would serve until the next annual meeting. Sheridan nominated Bruce MacDonald of New London, to represent the southern portion of the district, and James Belano of Windham, to represent the north.
“We’re trying be responsible,” Sheridan said. “We have $400,000 at stake … I think we have to show some seriousness here that we want to correct this effort, or we stand to lose this money entirely.”
Sheridan’s motion did not receive vote after Schmidt and Connair ruled the motion out-of-order, but a compromise was approved to appoint members, including MacDonald and Bellano, to an interim executive committee.
During Friday’s meeting, several members voiced concerns that the board was not adequately balancing the needs of smaller towns with the district’s better-known attractions in Mystic.
Connair acknowledged those concerns after mistakenly referring to the board — which represents 41 towns across the entire eastern portion of the state — as the “Southeastern Connecticut tourism district.”
“There I go right off the bat striking at the heart of one of our challenges,” Connair said. “Because we are 41 towns and we have to recognize that. We have tried and I think that one of our major objectives is to continue to make sure we’re inclusive and it’s not quote That Mystic thing.’ “
Osten pushes for caucus meeting
State Senator Cathy Osten (D-Sprague), who represents several of the tourism district’s towns, told the board that she and State Senator Paul Formica (R-East Lyme) plan to convene a meeting of the Connecticut General Assembly’s bipartisan Tourism Caucus to discuss the issue, and the potential for additional support, prior to the start of the next legislative session in early Feburary.
In a phone interview on Friday, Osten said that the purpose of the planned meetting is “to see what we could do in regards to assisting the tourism districts, all of them, in being successful.”
The Western Regional Tourism District also has been in breach of contract related to state funding.
Among other problems that needed to be resolved, Osten noted that the board of the Eastern Regional Tourism District and state officials disagreed on what consituted a quorum on the board.
“The eastern district has not met regularly enough to be established as a district and to have clear policies and procedures … so that needs to happen,” she said. “It needs to be determined whether they need a representative from each town. If they can’t get those representatives how does that conflict with what [the state Department of Economic and Community Development] wants them to do?”
Osten said that the Eastern district could be “the star of the tourist realm” in Connecticut, but that the district would need to make efforts to support tourism in its smaller towns.
“I think tourism is much more than going to a play or to Mystic aquarium,” she said. “We just have so many different things that we should be highlighting, and making sure that we’re promoting eastern Connecticut as the star of tourism in the state, and having a tourism district that is in disarray is not helpful.”