After months of sparring over budget deficits, taxes, education and health care, the Connecticut gubernatorial contenders had a hard time finding areas of disagreement Wednesday morning when they tackled the state’s tourism industry.

Malloy and Foley on tourism 9-29-10

Tom Foley, left, and Dan Malloy at tourism forum (Keith M. Phaneuf)

Democrat Dan Malloy, Republican Tom Foley and Independent Party candidate Tom Marsh each spent more time insisting he was the most committed to tourism promotion than they did actually arguing over the issues surrounding it.

After Foley declared he would back a $15 million investment in statewide tourism promotion–which currently has a $1 placeholder in the state budget–Malloy reminded the crowd of nearly 1,000 at the Connecticut Convention Center that he had pledged the same amount in mid-July.

“When kids used to come to school and didn’t have their homework, they used to say ‘the dog ate it,’” Malloy said. “Tom just ate my idea.’”

“If Dannel’s for $15 million, I’m for $15.25 million,” Foley quipped. “Let’s bid it up.”

“This really should be a nonpartisan issue,” Marsh said, and then quickly added that both Democrats and Republicans at the state Capitol have been complicit in allowing tourism promotion to erode in recent years.

The state’s Commission on Culture and Tourism, which organized the forum in conjunction with eight regional chambers of commerce, already has an effective strategy for promoting Connecticut, said Marsh.  The third-party candidate, who is Chester’s first selectman, added that restaurants, galleries and other ancillary services in his community effectively complement nearby tourism attractions in south-central Connecticut, such as the Essex Steam Train and the Goodspeed Opera House.

Tom Marsh tourism 9-29-10

Tom Marsh at tourism forum: ‘It’s a lack of willingness to follow through’ (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“We’re going to see some of that die on the vine” without funding from the state, Marsh added. “It’s not because we don’t have a plan. It’s a lack of willingness to follow through.”

Both Foley and Malloy also attacked the current leadership in state government, arguing tourism, which employs more than 110,000 people annually in Connecticut and generates $11.5 billion in traveler and tourism spending, has had too low a priority for years.

“There’s a fundamental lack of understanding between what is funding and what is investment,” Foley said, calling the shoreline and state park system “natural assets … that should support a very vibrant tourism industry.”

Malloy cited a recent Yankee magazine article that ranked Kent as the top foliage town in New England, adding “we have no money to tell the world that.”

The lack of attention giving to the changing leaves in that northwestern Connecticut town, Malloy said, is symptomatic of a larger problem that encompasses the convention center, the Connecticut Science Center, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and dozens of other arts, history, science and general entertainment destinations across the state. “We build (or renovate) them and then we don’t promote them,” he added. “There’s no leadership in this state and there’s nobody driving the ship.”

All three candidates also said that while tourism would be a priority, they could not guarantee the Commission on Culture and Tourism would not be merged with other agencies next year as state government grapples with a $3.3 billion budget deficit.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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