Building; Weird & Wonderful; Tourism
This week we received approval from the Town of Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission to construct the Milne Ocean Science and Conservation Center.
I was pleased to be able to address the Commission. In my comments I introduced them to our Leadership Team who were all in attendance, to our Chief Scientist, Dr. Tracy Romano, and our Water Quality Engineer, Dawn Brown.
Senior Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects Keith Sorensen presented the entire project plan to the Commission, and Dawn Brown answered some complex questions about the tanks that will be installed in the new building.
After the presentation I dubbed Keith Sorensen as the Walter Cronkite of Mystic Aquarium. His straight forward approach, concern for detail in answering the Commission’s questions, and 47 years of experience at Mystic Aquarium made him, I think, the most trusted person in the room that evening.
This $7.5 million project creates a new animal holding and quarantine facility, modern classrooms, a 250 seat auditorium and an outdoor plaza. We anticipate that construction will begin sometime this year.
Weird and Wonderful
Work is being completed on a major new gallery in the main aquarium building. Scheduled for opening late May, “Weird and Wonderful” features exotic and strange looking animals including giant spider crabs shown below.
Other species include octopus, sturgeons, paddlefish, isopods, bioluminesants and many, many more. Some have already taken up residence in their home tanks as the rest of the exhibits are completed. The giant isopods are known to eat five times their body weight once a year and may not eat the rest of the year!
Creation of this new gallery has included complete renovation or replacement of plumbing, electrical and other systems in that area of the building. While not glamorous, and largely unnoticed by guests, the infrastructure required for nearly 2.5 million gallons of water and 5,000 animals at Mystic Aquarium is substantial.
Special thanks to our Curator of Fish and Invertebrates, William Hana and his team for their hard work on the new exhibit and for dealing with some recent infrastructure challenges in other exhibit areas over the past few weeks. I appreciate the dedication and diligence of our fish and invertebrate staff.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our Director of Exhibits, Larry Warner, who has helped design and build the new exhibit, and the Facilities and Life Support Systems teams who are integral to any project we undertake.
Last week staff and volunteers from Mystic Aquarium joined in a tourism advocacy day at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The day was intended to highlight the importance of tourism as a sector of the state’s economy. Many business and political leaders were involved in the day’s activities.
I was pleased to sit in on a meeting of the bi-partisan legislative tourism caucus that day. The caucus is chaired by Senator Paul Formica of East Lyme.
Senior Vice President for External Relations, Andy Wood, at the request of Senator Formica, provided examples of states where public funding for tourism has worked effectively. He focused on his own experience of managing the tourism marketing organization in Philadelphia which was incentivized to perform by being funded by the State of Pennsylvania from a percentage of the state hotel occupancy tax.
In essence, in Andy’s model, the more hotel rooms booked, the more funding his agency received for increased marketing. As Andy noted, the model worked well and hotel occupancy and tourism substantially increased in Philadelphia.
Connecticut has a hotel occupancy tax. However, state funding for marketing is not linked to that tax or to the rental car tax, also a barometer of visitation. Many of us believe that linking revenue from these existing taxes to funding of state marketing is practical. For sure, it would establish a predictable funding level that would allow for stability in state marketing efforts.
Preferably, a public / private agency would be established that would be authorized to receive the state funds and to manage marketing the State of Connecticut. The exact funding level would be based on a percentage of the previous year’s receipts from the hotel occupancy tax.
In the past year, Connecticut has spent just over $8 million on tourism. Approximately $4 million went towards advertising the State. In order to have impact in the key Boston and New York media, which are the nation’s most expensive markets, many believe that Connecticut needs to be spending between $12 million and $15 million annually in advertising buys.
I believe, and have testified before the Legislature accordingly, that state funding of $12 to $15 million annually for advertising Connecticut and its assets, is an investment with near real-time return by way of increased hotel occupancy and related state revenue, increased car rentals and related state revenue, increased sales tax as well as longer term economic gains.
Currently the State of Connecticut realizes $180 million annually in tax revenue related to tourism. That number has grown significantly over the past few years during a period when Connecticut increased its marketing budget to $12 million, a number that has been consistently reduced by the Legislature over the past three years.
Connecticut could grow that $180 million to $200 million in tax revenue within two years without increasing individual tax rates. Studies by the State of Connecticut show that every dollar invested in tourism marketing produces a threefold return.
There is no evidence that Connecticut is anywhere close to market saturation in the tourism sector. In fact, there is considerable growth potential.
Most of the growth to our state tourism economy can be realized by capturing tourists who are being lured to Massachusetts, New York, Maine and Rhode Island which are all currently outspending Connecticut on marketing and yielding results – to the loss of the Nutmeg state. It is foolhardy to leave substantial economic benefit on the table, and it is common sense to dedicate a percentage of the hotel occupancy tax to be used for state marketing as a way of achieving economic growth.
Hopefully, “Andy’s Plan” will be taken seriously and real progress will be made on this important issue for Mystic Aquarium and the State of Connecticut.
See you all soon,