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Tourism advocates want state to put out welcoming mat again

January 2, 2019

When Connecticut’s budget woes led the state Department of Transportation to stop staffing a half-dozen highway Welcome Centers around the state a couple of years ago, few predicted the severity of what many in the tourism industry now say are the consequences: Would-be visitors have gotten the impression that Connecticut’s not much interested in them.

“You mean the Unwelcome Centers? That’s what we should call them,” Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said last month. “The first thing we’ve got to do is get those ‘CLOSED’ signs down, then open the centers.

“It’s entirely the wrong message,” he said.

With a new administration about to take control of state government, Sheridan and other tourism advocates are hopeful that Gov.-elect Ned Lamont will heed their call to restore the Welcome Centers to full operation within 100 days of Lamont taking office Jan. 9. Lamont’s own transition committee on arts, culture and tourism policy included the recommendation in a report it submitted to the governor-elect’s team.

Two Welcome Centers bookend southeastern Connecticut.

Travelers approaching the region from the west encounter a shuttered rest stop on northbound Interstate 95 just past Exit 65 in Westbrook, an orange “CLOSED″ sign plastered over a welcoming message.

In North Stonington, drivers entering the state from Rhode Island on southbound I-95 can pull into a “Rest Area and Information Center” just past Exit 92. Signage points out that the building there is closed from 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. During the day, bathrooms inside the building are accessible but the “Welcome Center” portion of the space is locked, empty counters and a “Connecticut … still revolutionary” banner visible through glass doors.

In September 2016, the DOT announced the midafternoon-to-morning closing of the North Stonington rest stop as well as those on I-84 in Danbury, Southington and Willington, and on I-91 in Middletown and Wallingford. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s biennium budget proposal for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years sought to save 550,000 in the budget to staff them for seven hours a day (annually),” state Sen. Paul Formica, the East Lyme Republican, said of the Welcome Centers. “It’s definitely something we should do.”

Formica, founder and co-chairman of the legislature’s bipartisan tourism caucus, said he’s had discussions about what’s involved in restoring the centers’ operation with the state Department of Transportation commissioner, James Redeker. Formica believes it makes sense to have the centers open — and staffed — from, say, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Turning over operation of the centers to a private entity or having them staffed by volunteers are options that should be explored, Formica and others have said.

“Their closing has turned out to be a lot more significant than was anticipated,” said Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, another tourism initiative for which the state pulled funding. “The unintended consequences of sending the message to out-of-state travelers that you’re not interested in providing hospitality have been devastating.

“It was an unfortunate decision (to close the centers) and the execution was unfortunate,” he said.

Dombroskas said the North Stonington center, for example, could play an important role in promoting attractions in Mystic and elsewhere in southeastern Connecticut, the state’s leading tourism destination.

Part of the problem, Dombroskas said, is a lack of coordination between two state agencies — the Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining the Welcome Centers, and the Department of Economic and Community Development, which includes the state’s tourism office. He said the new governor, within his first 30 days in office, should direct the DOT commissioner to appoint a liaison to the tourism office.

Another approach to a state-run highway rest stop can be seen about six miles into Rhode Island from the Connecticut border between Exits 2 and 3A of I-95. The Welcome Center there is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and on one recent weekday was staffed by two people, one devoted to providing assistance with E-Z Pass issues and the other ready to provide answers to travelers’ questions about the Ocean State.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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