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February 20, 2023 Funding Fight

In new alliance, arts and tourism industries team up to lobby for major state funding increase

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER David Fay, president and CEO of The Bushnell in Hartford.

Still looking to fully recover from the pandemic’s negative impacts, Connecticut’s tourism and arts organizations have teamed up to make an aggressive push for more state funding.

Their request — outlined in a two-page memo put together by the CT Arts Alliance, CT Humanities and CT Tourism Coalition — is for $58.5 million annually, more than double what the state currently spends to promote the sectors.

The funding would include $25 million for statewide marketing to promote Connecticut’s theaters, museums, theme parks, casinos and other tourist attractions.

Industry leaders said the funding is critical because Connecticut has traditionally fallen behind its neighboring states on arts investment, and that for every $1 invested in arts, culture and tourism, there is a $3 return.

That means a $58.5-million investment would yield a $175-million economic impact, advocates said.

Rev. Shelley Best, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, said arts are the lifeblood of Connecticut communities and should be vigorously supported.

“We know that arts and culture is an indicator of public and community health,” said Best, who represents about 200 Greater Hartford arts and cultural organizations. “It makes a difference; it’s how we build communities. It’s how you create vitality where people have a reason to come into your town, your city, your community. Arts and culture bring people together.”

Rev. Shelley Best

Early support

The industries’ pleas have found some receptive ears. A bill requesting the $58.5 million has been raised in the legislature’s Commerce Committee with more than a dozen co-sponsors.

However, Gov. Ned Lamont’s new two-year, $50.5 billion budget proposal sets aside only a fraction of that spending request: $13.8 million annually in fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

That’s raised the ire of some legislators and arts executives.

State. Rep John-Michael Parker

State. Rep John-Michael Parker (D-Madison), who co-chairs the legislature’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Caucus, said he was “very disappointed to see the lack of investment in tourism, arts and culture,” in Lamont’s budget.

“It’s basically flat-funded from before the pandemic,” he said. “The hundreds and hundreds of constituents, stakeholders and advocates across the sectors have spoken loudly the past year about the importance of increased funding, and to go back to pre-pandemic levels drops Connecticut far behind our neighboring states.”

Parker noted that lawmakers did increase tourism and arts funding in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to $52.1 million, or about $26 million annually — significantly more than what was previously allocated.

However, Lamont spokesman David Bednarz said a significant portion of that increased funding came from one-time federal emergency COVID-relief aid that has since dried up.

In terms of actual state dollars, the governor’s budget proposes to increase funding “from $13.5 million last year to $13.8 million over each of the next two years,” Bednarz said.

Meantime, Lamont is facing pressure from other interest groups — including state colleges, social service nonprofits, etc. — for greater funding amid another projected budget surplus and fully funded $3.3-billion rainy day fund.

A new coalition

Frank Burns

Arts and tourism leaders have been working together behind the scenes on their funding request strategy for the past year, according to Frank Burns, executive director of the CT Tourism Coalition, who has been a key force behind the effort.

Their so-called “Arts, Culture, and Tourism Funding Roadmap” was developed by a 14-member committee led by Burns as well as CT Humanities Executive Director Jason Mancini and Brett Thompson, head of the CT Arts Alliance.

Other group members include lobbying and public relations specialists as well as industry executives like Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, operator of Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Together, they convened six focus groups, leveraging feedback from more than 200 arts, tourism and cultural institution leaders, said Burns, whose CT Tourism Coalition represents more than 140 organizations including restaurants, hotels, marinas and casinos.

Burns said the $58.5-million funding request — which would be the largest-ever for arts, culture and tourism — would help the industry’s continued recovery from the pandemic and make up for years of insufficient investment.

In addition to $25 million for statewide marketing efforts, industry advocates want $17.5 million for the Connecticut Cultural Fund, which supports grants to individual arts organizations; $8 million for arts, culture, and tourism earmarks; and $3 million for industry workforce development efforts.

“That funding is needed for us to be competitive with neighboring states and states throughout the country,” Burns said. “We have spent a lot of time educating legislators and, for the first time ever, all three sectors (arts, tourism and culture) are working together. We’ve combined our resources and, so far, have been well received.”

In addition to outlining funding requests, the coalition has recommended new revenue sources.

For example, they’ve suggested increasing from 10% to 25% the amount of hotel and lodging tax revenues allocated to the Tourism Fund, which would create a $32-million windfall. They also recommend transferring $20 million in online gambling tax revenue to tourism and arts organizations.

The coalition said that the arts, culture and tourism sectors make up 13.4% (or $40 billion) of Connecticut’s gross state product and support 175,000 jobs.

‘Extremely short’

David Fay, president and CEO of The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford for the past 21 years, has been a frequent critic of what he said is a lack of state funding compared to what similar institutions in other parts of the country receive.

Lamont’s budget allocates $193,000 in state funding to The Bushnell in each of the next two fiscal years, an amount Fay said comes up “extremely short.”

“My performing-arts counterparts across the country, on average, get $2 million a year (from their respective states) in operating support,” said Fay, who oversees a $22-million budget and 53 full- and 285 part-time employees. “I get $193,000. Wow.”

Fay said the Bushnell went dark for 18 months between March 2020 and September 2021, and has been kept afloat during the pandemic with about $8.7 million in government rescue funds.

But the public health crisis remains an issue for theaters and other tourist attractions, Fay said, and additional state support is needed to bolster the industry.

“Our entire industry is struggling to get back on its feet,” he said.

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