Local tourism leaders urge state to keep funding industry

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ROCKFORD — The more than $25 billion-a-year hospitality industry can be part of the solution to the state’s economic woes, tourism officials told state legislators during a luncheon today at the Clock Tower Resort.

But amid its financial crisis, the officials from across northern Illinois said, the state has slowed the flow of tourism funding, cut tourism advertising and eliminated staffing from the state’s 15 welcome centers.

An estimated 300,000 people work directly in the tourism industry and another 300,000 have jobs that are connected to or dependent on tourism in Illinois, said Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.

“Tourism, unlike anything else in Illinois, means jobs,” Gordon said.

Bureaus that promote tourism and generate events that produce hotel stays, including the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, get a significant amount of funding from a statewide 6 percent hotel tax.

Officials said that under state law 33.5 percent of the tax must be invested back into tourism, but a lot of that funding hasn’t been released during the budget crisis.

The seven legislators in attendance largely expressed support for the tourism industry. But they also acknowledged the dire financial straits the state is facing, with Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland, a pilot, comparing the state’s budget to a plane with an engine out.

Most comments supported continued state investment in tourism marketing.

“I have a lot of passion for tourism because I know that tourism does a lot for the state of Illinois,” said Rep. Chuck Jefferson, D-Rockford. “It brings in dollars we wouldn’t otherwise realize. We have to make sure we are doing everything we can from a state’s perspective to bring those dollars in.”

Local tourism bureau CEO John Groh said cancellation of some state tourism promotional efforts and funding reductions are part of a disturbing trend. He said the bureau received about $276,000 from the state last year, but expects just 80 percent of that this year as payments are withheld.

“The beautiful, scenic byways in northwestern Illinois, the wineries, the small shops are all good reasons to come here,” Groh said. “But they may not be here if we are not advocating and promoting it.”