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State Can Give Tourism, Culture An Economic Edge

By WILLIAM HOSLEY

April 01, 2011

As part of his bureaucratic streamlining of state agencies, Gov. Dannel Malloy has proposed moving the Commission on Culture & Tourism into the Department of Economic and Community Development. Can it work?

Yes, if the agency looks seriously at the economics of culture and tourism.

By bringing tourism, the arts and historic preservation together in 2003, Gov. John Rowland acknowledged the interdependence of these functions. The hope was that a coordinated strategy would help Connecticut capitalize on its astonishing wealth of cultural resources. It didn't achieve that potential, but it was a beginning.

To succeed, the newly merged agency must treat tourism and the cultural resources it depends on as a high-priority economic cluster, as we do with bioscience and financial services. It should focus on key cluster destinations such as Hartford, New Haven, Norwich/New London, the lower Connecticut Valley and the Litchfield Hills.

Instead of continuing the costly, economically indefensible earmarks perennially handed out to a dozen-plus favored programs and institutions in a handful of favored legislative districts, the agency should reward innovation. What's needed instead is a coherent, transparent, Obama-style challenge-grant program designed to reward communities that muster the vision and desire to transform their assets into job-creating destinations.

Take, as a possible example, Hartford's Coltsville complex, which is in line to become a National Historic Park. The new agency can help develop the historic aspects of the project and look for commercial tenants to support it. Meanwhile, if Hartford were to move ahead on tourism based on Colt and its other Industrial Revolutionaries or any of its other assets that might be worthy of a challenge grant.

That, in any event, would be the general idea. Strategies for developing and marketing our best cultural assets will strengthen the tourism sector and add jobs. With many assets in existing historic town centers, investment there will help redensify our cities and fight sprawl, as will new and expanded thematic trails.

Not every place has "the goods" to compete. But those that do should be encouraged and rewarded for thinking imaginatively about the what they have and how to present and preserve it.

It's not complicated. But it isn't going to happen by accident and it hasn't happened yet.

I hope Gov. Malloy and his new agency head Christopher Bergstrom will begin by convening a dialogue about the economic and cultural dimensions of the treasures around us. It will only happen with executive leadership. The effect on how Connecticut is perceived nationally and internationally is at stake. Indeed, it also effects how we imagine ourselves our narrative as a place.

Connecticut has contributed mightily to every chapter in the development of the greatest nation on earth. As the late Bruce Fraser of the Connecticut Humanities Council liked to put it, "Connecticut is America writ small" compact and accessible. This is a claim few states can make or match us on.

With 20 million prospective visitors within day-tripping distance, the opportunity is ripe. We can burnish our image and economy by focusing on things worth bragging about: scenic attractions, open land, diverse architecture and historic districts, interesting performance venues, artistic and athletic performance, and our epic stories the whaling tales of Mystic Seaport, the incomparable Mark Twain, Yale and historic New Haven, the Amistad, Eli Whitney, Prudence Crandall, Florence Griswold and so many more.

If the new agency can put the pieces together, we can own the music.

William Hosley of Enfield is a historical consultant and principal of Terra Firma Northeast.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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