ST. PETERSBURG — The marketing department's mission is to tout the city as an "urban resort destination," but several council members and a mayoral candidate give that effort a failing grade.
The department's 19 employees and $2.1 million annual budget have become talking points on the campaign trail. Complaints center around staff posting only meeting notices and news releases, but not promoting the city outside the region.
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" asked City Council chairman Karl Nurse. "It's the least effective department in the city."
Rick Kriseman vows to scrutinize the department if he ousts Mayor Bill Foster from office.
Kriseman questions why the city doesn't promote neighborhood hot spots for dining, retail and arts like programs in Seattle, Portland and Boston.
"I don't think our marketing department has been effective," Kriseman said. "I don't think we've done a real good job selling our city. And that starts with the mayor. He's supposed to be the head cheerleader."
When the Great Recession decimated city coffers, Foster said he faced tough choices. Instead of promoting the city, staff kept vital services flowing, he said.
"We assessed our needs and wants," Foster said. "We chose public safety. Do you cut codes, or do you cut marketing?"
He expects marketing efforts to increase as the economy improves. He bumped the department's proposed budget by nearly 2 percent for 2014.
That isn't enough for Nurse, who pointed across the bay.
"(Tampa Mayor Bob) Buckhorn is a good illustration of someone who is a cheerleader for his city," Nurse said, adding that Foster's "modest guy" approach "doesn't serve our city well."
The marketing downfall started in 2010 when Mayor Rick Baker left office, Nurse said. Baker's "voice was loud and clear" as the face of marketing, he added.
Foster admits his leadership style is different from Baker's.
"I don't travel with an entourage. I don't have camera crews, and quite honestly, I don't care who gets the credit," Foster said recently. "I don't have to do a press conference for everything. I just want to see results."
The mayor declined to address the criticism, which he called unfair since Baker had an additional $30 million in the budget during the boom years.
A look across the bay at Tampa's marketing department found a staff that operates similarly.
With a budget of $905,000, 11 of the 14 employees work for the television station, said Ali Glisson, a Tampa spokeswoman.
Tampa relies on Visit Tampa Bay tourism bureau to market the city outside the region. St. Petersburg has an arrangement with Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
St. Petersburg's marketing director, Beth Herendeen, said the advertising budget dropped from about $92,000 in 2005 to $20,000 this year.
"We aren't funded to do traditional marketing," she said. "Our core mission is to communicate with residents."
She stressed the city gets global and national exposure from the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field.
"We couldn't buy ads for that," Herendeen said.
Meanwhile, the city spent $50,000 on a short-lived marketing initiative in 2011.
An ad campaign and a website, www.surprisingstpete.com, strived to get locals and visitors to embrace St. Petersburg after being lured to the region. The website is no longer maintained.
It's time to do more, council member Jeff Danner said.
He frequently hears from visitors who didn't know about Beach Drive, the museums or the art district. Danner favors increasing the marketing budget for more promotions.
"We just market to ourselves," Danner said. "We have to tell people what a great city this is. That's what we need to do."
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.