2015-06-18 / Front Page

Budget Cuts Local Tourism Funds

By Tom Walsh

The 2015-2016 state budget approved by the Rhode Island House on June 16 would cut the state’s contribution to its eight local tourism districts in the next fiscal year.

It will cost Discover Newport, the nonprofit organization that promotes tourism in Newport and eight other East Bay communities, about $290,000—or 10 percent of the organization’s annual budget that is derived from the state’s five percent tax on hotel and motel room charges.

Although the new budget must still be approved by the Senate, there seemed to be little chance that the House budget figures would be changed on this topic so late in the session.

“The deal is done,” said Evan Smith, Discover Newport president and CEO. “We will support this. If they do this correctly it will be good for everyone.” He said that while Newport and other local tourism agencies must operate with fewer dollars beginning Jan. 1, he hopes that another aspect of the budget—restoring the state’s tourism effort from its current an- nual allocation of $480,000 to the $3.5 million it once was, will help Rhode Island’s overall tourism effort.

“Getting that back is a huge victory,” Smith said. “You have to invest some money to make money. The key now becomes what they do with this money.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said the increased support for state tourism was important. “It’s one of the first times that tourism has been treated as an important part of the economy of Rhode Island,” she said. “I believe Newport will be a beneficiary of that.”

She also maintained that the actual wording of this part of the budget was intended to ensure that the state makes on ongoing commitment to promoting tourism. “There is language that states that the same amount of dollars be committed on an annual basis,” she said. And, the Senate president said that in discussions with Newport officials, the annual commitment to tourism funding was “very important” to them.

Smith has said in the past that the best overall tourism strategy is to have both statewide and regional tourism promotion. “If you don’t have both, you’re operating in a handicapped system.”

“We’re optimistic,” Smith said of the recent developments. “If you have the state operating with a good staff and marketing plan, then that’s good for everyone statewide. We will do everything we can to support it. A rising tide floats all the boats if it’s done correctly.”

However, Smith noted, an immediate task for his organization is deciding how to live with 10 percent less financial support. He said the Discover Newport operation is organized around three areas—marketing, sales and visitor services. He said he and the rest of his organization will have to determine how to operate with about $100,000 less in each of those categories.

“That’s not a task that I’m looking forward to,” he said. “But we’ve got to do it.” He said he understands that the state had other difficult budget issues to wrestle with this year. “Our scenario could actually have been much worse.”

Smith believes that Newport begins this new era with an important advantage—the city is already well known nationally and internationally. “Rhode Island is a fabulous place,” Smith said. “This will hopefully expose the product to a lot more people. “

“The travel industry is intensely competitive,” he said. "But I believe tourism here has a bright future.”

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