By Carol Kozma, State House correspondent
State Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, chairwoman of the House Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, looks at items with Diane Burnette, director of the Johnny Appleseed Visitor Information Center, during a coffee stop at the visitor center on Route 2 in Lancaster Friday. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / BRETT CRAWFORD
State lawmakers traveled through three local tourism districts Friday, meeting with business owners to learn about the tourism industry’s needs.
The Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development organized the tour, “so we can see how their businesses are, what their challenges are, what is working and what is not working,” said committee chairwoman state Rep. Cory Atkins, a Democrat from Concord.
Lawmakers visited the Johnny Appleseed, Franklin County and Mohawk Trail tourism councils.
Issues ranged from a need for better water infrastructure to encourage and speed development, to a need for more marketing of tourist attractions.
“We will try to do our best to address those issues when we come back to the Statehouse,” Atkins said.
State Rep. Chris Walsh, left, talks with state Rep. Stephen DiNatale as David McKeehan, center, president of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, chats with Suzanne Farias, general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel in Leominster and chairman of the Johnny Appleseed Trail Association Board.
The day began with a public hearing in Turner Falls where David McKeehan, president of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, compared the $11 million the Massachusetts tourism office has to spend to New York’s $60 million budget. McKeehan said New Jersey spends $25 million on tourism and Connecticut budgets $27 million to fund the tourism industry.
“We have a very efficient and attractive state in terms of tourism, but we could use additional resources,” McKeehan said in a telephone interview.
McKeehan said he also hoped to connect local businesses along Route 2 with the tourism industry.
“Obviously, we have to be as effective with the dollars we get as we can be,” he said.
Although Atkins said the Massachusetts spends closer to $13 million on tourism, she agreed the state will have to increase funds to the tourism-and-arts sector — the third-largest industry in the state.
“Every dollar we invest in it, we get $40 back,” Atkins said.
Suzanne Farias, general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel in Leominster, and board chairwoman of the Johnny Appleseed Trail, said a Howard Johnson hotel along Route 2 was turned into the Johnny Appleseed Visitor Center 16 years ago, and 165,000 people come through the building every year.
“At least we have planted that seed. There is so much displayed in the visitor center, mostly produced by our area,” Farias said in a telephone interview. “What we are doing, is giving them (commuters) a reason to get off the highway.”
Farias told lawmakers she wants to market the tourism industry to traveling sports teams who spend more than one day in the area, and hopes lawmakers will think of the tourism industry when discussing the budget.
“When it comes to the budget, spending some money to make some money is very important here,” Farias said.
Al Rose who owns Red Apple Farm in Phillipston with his wife, Nancy, employing more than 100 people, said that there is a growing awareness of the region as a destination stop.
Rose said he was happy lawmakers came to support the tourism industry.
“This is a part of Massachusetts that often gets missed because of the highway and the other attractions,” Rose said in a telephone interview. “It’s comforting to know we are all in this together.”