Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

Pinellas tourism agency won't turn to public-private model

CLEARWATER — There was no debate at Wednesday's Pinellas Tourist Development Council meeting about whether the county tourism agency should switch to a public-private model that would let it spend bed-tax dollars without the accountability of a government agency.

That's not going to happen.

There was also no debate about the compensation of public employees who work for that agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

The county needs to pay them more competitively, council members said.

"We have done an excellent job here, and we have an excellent staff," said council member Tim Bogott, CEO of TradeWinds Island Resorts. "But we are exposed here to being dismembered by others seeing our success and the talents of our people."

The tourist agency's former executive director, D.T. Minich, recently left after seven years and at the height of Pinellas' current tourism boom. He started as Osceola County's tourism chief Monday, lured by a better offer. Minich's annual salary with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater was $164,000; he will make more than $200,000 in his new job.

Minich will lead the transition of Osceola's tourism agency, Experience Kissimmee, into a public-private hybrid. Hillsborough also has a public-private hybrid tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay.

Though those agencies distribute bed-tax dollars, they also resist following Florida government sunshine laws.

The Pinellas Tourist Development Council, a board of public and private officials that oversees Pinellas' public tourism agency, discussed the merits of a private versus public model.

A public-private agency — one that would distribute tourist-tax dollars without government rules for disbursing them — can react faster to changes in the tourism marketplace. It could sign marketing contracts faster and better compete with private-sector salaries if it wasn't subject to public scrutiny.

"There's no question in my mind the private organizations I work with have an edge because they react much faster and with more flexibility to compete with other destinations very effectively," said Walter Klages of Research Data Services, who prepared a memo breaking down the two governance models for the council.

As for the public agency model, Klages said: "Sometimes public records are good. Transparency is good. Voters want to know what's going on and need to know what's going on."

The council, though, had no appetite for bringing the public-private tourism model to Pinellas County.

"We are talking about public dollars for a public purpose, and I think the transparency issue is very important," said council member Julie Scales of the Dunedin City Commission. "I think this model has worked for us.

"If the issue is retirement and compensation, let's look at it."

It would take a vote of the Pinellas County Commission to change Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's operating model. But changing the agency's compensation policies can be done by the county administrator acting alone.

The development council feared that Pinellas' tourism success — the county is in the midst of a fourth consecutive year of record-breaking visitation and tourist-bed-tax numbers — could attract other counties looking to bolster their tourism agencies.

"There is a danger of a brain drain, no doubt," Klages said.

The council will conduct a national search to replace Minich. The top internal candidate is Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's interim director, David Downing. He said he will apply for the top job.

"My DNA is in this brand," Downing said.

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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