New London - Small-business owners attending a forum Friday at the Garde Arts Center said they are upbeat about the coming tourist season and are happy Connecticut finally is investing in a statewide marketing program.
Even high gas prices couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of panelists who were part of a live broadcast of the WNPR radio show “Where We Live” in the Garde’s Oasis Room.
Dan McFadden, director of communications at Mystic Seaport, said traffic at the destination in February was the best in years, helped by unseasonably warm weather, and he expected more in-state travel as a result of higher prices at the pump.
“We’re looking forward to a very strong year,” McFadden said.
Cathy McHugh, who runs two women’s clothing stores in Mystic, said sales have been “a little dicey” so far this year, but she thinks higher-priced gas could be good for business, keeping locals closer to home and encouraging people from nearby states to come to eastern Connecticut to save money.
“It’s still a more affordable choice,” she said.
The business owners said they wholeheartedly support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $15 million initiative to put the state back on the map of New England tourism.
“I’m glad we’re back in the marketing game,” Dave Labrie, owner of the Inn at Harbor Hill Marina in Niantic, said during the show, which was broadcast before a crowd of about 90.
“Without a state campaign, it’s very, very difficult to convince people that Connecticut should be on their (vacation) short list,” added Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District.
The show’s host, John Dankosky, pointed out that former Gov. M. Jodi Rell nearly had zeroed out the state’s tourism budget over the past two years because of the state’s financial difficulties. He added during the radio station’s quarterly small business forum, hosted as a breakfast meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, that the lack of tourism marketing had not put local businesses that rely on visitors in an enviable position.
But Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the local Chamber, said having two major casinos in the region helps smaller businesses because of the gaming industry’s large budget for advertising. The region needs to do more to tap into the Block Island and Long Island ferries, however, because a recent study showed that most of the half million annual passengers drive out-of-town without spending dollars here, he said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, added that the region would benefit if Amtrak would re-establish a connection between New London and T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., since it provides access to international tourism markets. He said most international tourists coming to the state have to go through New Jersey.
A rising middle class in China, Courtney said, likely would be attracted to Connecticut, particularly the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos, which when taken together bring in more people daily than DisneyWorld in Orlando, Fla.
“We have nothing to be diffident about,” he said.
Corinna Ferguson, director of marketing for The Dinosaur Place in Montville, echoed other speakers when she said small businesses are an important addition to some of the region’s larger attractions, such as the casinos, Seaport and Mystic Aquarium.
“People won’t come for one thing, but they’ll come for the package,” she said.
“We are really all in this together,” Peter Glankoff, marketing director for the Mystic Aquarium, said.
Joyce Resnikoff, owner of the Olde Mistick Village shopping center, said major destinations such as the casinos need other places for their patrons to visit. And small business owners acknowledged that tourists who come to town for other reasons also can partake of the entertainment at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
“It can be a win-win if we’re all willing to partner,” Ferguson said.