Mystic - State Sen. Donald Williams told a Chamber of Commerce meeting Friday at the Hilton Mystic that he believes in regional tourism districts, "especially in eastern Connecticut," but that local officials need to prove the value of their marketing efforts to survive cuts proposed in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget.
"I'm not saying there should be a tourism district for every town ... but for eastern Connecticut - yes, yes," said Williams, D-Brookyn, president pro tempore of the state Senate.
Williams told a crowd of more than 100 at a breakfast meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut that no one is out to get the regional tourism districts. But projected budget deficits in the next two years are requiring some hard decisions about cutbacks, he said.
"We need to show the benefit and the value," Williams said. "It will not be easy ... because of the billion-dollar deficit."
Gov. Malloy had planned to spend $15 million on tourism promotion during the current fiscal year, but had to cut aid to $9.4 million as falling state revenue led to budget reductions. Malloy is again proposing to spend $15 million in the upcoming budget, an amount that Williams said would pay even more dividends this time around because the startup costs of developing the "Still Revolutionary" marketing campaign have already been paid.
Williams said it would be unwise to cut back on the state's commitment to tourism now that Connecticut is back on visitors' radar screens.
"Tourism is very important," Williams said during a 45-minute speech headlined Tourism as an Economic Development Driver.
But Williams emphasized that other initiatives will also help the state turn the corner economically after the longest recession in our lifetime. The Connecticut Treasures program, for instance, is intended to help the state's tourism industry by emphasizing Connecticut's cultural, historical and artistic institutions, and the Connecticut Made program will attempt to make the same sort of impact among small manufacturers.
Williams said he wants the state to do a better job in helping develop business-to-business relationships so that a Connecticut manufacturer who needs a certain component is aware of nearby companies that could deliver those products.
"Right now, it's pretty much word of mouth," Williams said.
He added that the state needs to regain its sense of Yankee ingenuity - a philosophy of change and reinvention that goes back to the roots of Connecticut.
"Connecticut wasn't (always) known as the land of steady habits," he said. "We were constantly reinventing ourselves again and again and again."
Williams said the state's 169 towns represented a great model for government in the 1750s, but it doesn't work as well today. He advocated more regional cooperation and perhaps even the combining of towns to build efficiencies while maintaining local identities by creating boroughs.
Williams said regionalization is important to the prosperity of Connecticut and could help prop up the state's ailing cities.
"In Connecticut, we have fallen behind," he said.
Chamber President Tony Sheridan, a former first selectman in Waterford, agreed that greater regionalization is a top priority.
"Change is in the wind, and it is necessary," he said. "But it will not change unless the public demands change."