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Clearwater officials stick with tourism contract but are concerned about chamber layoffs

CLEARWATER — City leaders decided to stick with a tourism promotion contract with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, even though the organization just canned three people who specialize in tourism.

"We've got huge events coming over the next month, and I don't think the city could possibly rally its forces to all of a sudden take over everything," City Council member Carlen Petersen said at Thursday's City Council meeting.

The caveat to Thursday's consensus was that the city will closely monitor the chamber to make sure it fulfills the $190,000 annual contract, which took effect Thursday.

"At this point, to just deep-six everything, I think, would have ramifications that would not benefit anybody," Petersen said.

But if the chamber can't perform, the contract will probably be at risk, city leaders said.

"Then we will pull the plug and most likely go out to (bid) to get a different provider or potentially bring it in house," Mayor Frank Hibbard said Friday morning.

The agreement, which was approved two weeks ago, says it can be terminated by the city "for any municipal purpose" with 30 days' notice. There's also an out for the city with 10 days' notice if the chamber fails to adhere to contract provisions.

Council member John Doran said it appeared the chamber knew about the layoffs when the city approved the contract two weeks ago.

"I have a feeling had these changes taken place three weeks ago, instead of three days ago, there might have been a different discussion here," Doran said Thursday.

On Friday, Doran said he is willing to give the chamber the benefit of the doubt because the chamber has been a dependable partner for a decade.

Chamber president and chief executive officer Bob Clifford did not return several calls for comment Friday.

Two representatives from Clearwater Beach hotels told city leaders they were shocked by the layoffs. They said they doubt that the remaining staff can promote the area without first-hand knowledge of Clearwater's tourism scene, especially with major events, such as this weekend's powerboat race and the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, on the way.

"My concern is 75 percent of the membership of the chamber is tourism driven, and we just laid off 40 percent of the staff that support that," said Joanna Patterson-Rizkallah, Hilton director of sales and marketing.

On Tuesday, the chamber laid off Sandi Carnagey, vice president of membership development; Gerri Raymond, vice president of tourism; Kimbrough Maier, manager of the State Road 60 welcome center; and Paul Dalton, manager of the Clearwater Beach welcome center.

"It's like firing your entire hotel sales team because business is bad," said Claudia Huber, director of sales and marketing for Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites.

Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's economic development director, said the chamber is implementing a new business model. Clifford and Anita Treiser, St. Petersburg's former marketing director, will be in charge of tourism efforts.

Council member George Cretekos said he is impressed by Treiser's track record of helping to energize St. Petersburg, but he is concerned that she doesn't have enough support staff working with her.

If the chamber has a problem performing, Clearwater must be prepared to act quickly, said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson.

"To a very large extent, we live for tourism, and we just can't have the ball dropped as it relates to attracting tourists to our beach areas," Gibson said. "It would be a disaster."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Clearwater officials stick with tourism contract but are concerned about chamber layoffs 10/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 10:07pm]
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