As summer nears, senators say Massachusetts visitor centers are lacking

Some legislators say other states doing a better job at welcoming tourists

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BOSTON (State House News Service) – State senators last week touted myriad investments sprinkled throughout the state’s first $40 billion budget, but slammed the door on $200,000 for visitor centers, disappointing lawmakers whose districts are heavily dependent on tourists flowing in from other states.

“People need to use restrooms. People need to ask for directions,” said Sen. Kathleen O’Connor-Ives of Newburyport, former chairwoman of the Legislature’s Tourism Committee. “People want to feel welcome to the state.”

The Senate dismissed a push by O’Connor-Ives to add $200,000 to the budget for visitor centers after she joined three colleagues in lamenting shuttered facilities and an apparent cold shoulder being given to the state’s third-largest economic sector, tourism.

“I know for those of us who go around to other states, you see these amazing welcome centers,” said Sen. Vinny deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican. “They’ve invested a lot in that because they’re rolling out the welcome mat to people. That’s what these visitor centers are.”

No one spoke against the amendment during debate, but a voice on a hot mic during the session webcast spoke to the alleged opinion of a Cabinet secretary.

“Which is hysterical to me because Jay Ash is so against funding visitor centers. He thinks they’re a waste of money,” the person says, referring to Baker administration Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash.

The News Service contacted Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sen. Karen Spilka and she confirmed she was the voice on the broadcast.

Spilka said she had heard Ash speak at an event about the necessity of visitor centers in an age when people are able to secure so much information on their cellphones. “Knowing that, I may have overstated our difference of opinion a little bit,” she said.

While the amendment was defeated, Spilka strongly defended the Senate’s commitment to tourism, an industry that she said generates over $1 billion in state and local taxes and over $20 billion in direct spending every year.

Spilka blamed the Baker administration for holding back half of a $6 million fiscal 2017 appropriation for regional tourism councils. The Senate included language in its fiscal 2018 budget directing the administration to allocate the full $6 million appropriation by September 2017, she said.

“This is very important funding to the Senate and we believe that tourism plays a critical role in our economy,” said Spilka, who said she believed the full allocations for regional councils could help meet the funding needs of visitor centers.

Ash was not available to comment on Spilka’s remarks or the criticism from senators about the state of visitor centers. There are 11 centers, according to an Ash aide, who said they are run by regional tourism councils and require funding from the state or the councils to pay for staff, upkeep and maintenance.

Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro said he’s been traveling the state in his new post as chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Community Development and Small Business. He’s driven past closed visitor centers, he said, and there is a “big ‘closed’ sign on the blue highway sign welcoming people to Cape Cod.”

“What sort of message are we sending to people who are visiting here?” Cyr said, drawing no engagement from opponents of the amendment. “What kind of message are we sending our small businesses and entrepreneurs who are working really hard this time of year to gear up?”

Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, the new chairman of the Tourism Committee, suggested there needs to be greater awareness of the competition for tourists.

“Potential visitors have a limited amount of resources to spend and they have choices to make,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so important for us to roll out the welcoming mat and capitalize on the amount of money that is spent here by our tourists and our guests.”

Noting the state’s sluggish tax revenue growth, O’Connor-Ives said the return on investment for every dollar invested in tourism is seven dollars.

“This is a tough time for tourism in the Commonwealth … ,” she said. “It’s perplexing because revenues are down. How can we increase revenues creatively? By investing in tourism. And with our visitor centers unsupported for another season, we know that if we drive to Connecticut or Vermont or New Hampshire or Maine their visitor centers are open for business and it’s a reflection on us as a Commonwealth if we don’t have those doors open.”

Senators from Spencer, Millbury, Salem and Westfield also signed on in support of the measure, which failed on a voice vote before it was withdrawn.

At the outset of debate on the amendment, both deMacedo and Cyr suggested the amendment’s rejection had been predetermined.