The retirement of Paul Catoe as chief executive of Tampa Bay & Co. gives Hillsborough County an overdue opportunity to assess the performance of its tourism marketing efforts. But the search for Catoe's successor has turned into another example of what's wrong with the direction of this tax-supported agency. The organization should conduct its search in public. And elected leaders in Hillsborough should have a broader discussion about how to maximize these tourist tax dollars.
Tampa Bay & Co. directors decided against conducting a national search for a new chief executive, citing the costs and the risks that a dynamic CEO would bolt in a few years for a bigger community. Those are poor excuses. This is a buyers' market, and the agency should take advantage by looking at the best candidates to fill the top leadership post. There is nothing about a local search, anyway, that guarantees the new CEO would (or should) remain. That is the function of a contract. The policy also is suspect in the wake of the board chairman stepping down and applying for the job.
For an organization in the marketing business, Tampa Bay & Co. has a blind eye to its public image. The group refuses to release the list of applicants, even though 80 percent of the agency's $10 million budget comes from a tax on hotel rooms. The nonprofit exists thanks to a dedicated source of public funds, yet it calls the selection of its new chief executive a "confidential" matter. There is accountability that comes with public money. The board should release the applicants' resumes and hold the selection process in the open.
The leadership change is also a time to re-examine the role and direction of this agency. Sporting events and conventions are fine. But the area needs to tap the "heritage tourism" market. Tampa's historic Latin Quarter in Ybor City, the Plant Museum and the immigrant social clubs are underutilized jewels. Whether Tampa Bay & Co. is effective is another question. The number of visitors to Hillsborough has dropped every year since 2005, even before the recession began. Visitors are less likely to stay the night, and they are arriving with smaller parties. Business leads have dropped, and traffic at the tourism agency's offices is the lowest since at least 2004.
Transparency is also an issue. In some communities such as Pinellas, the tourism agency is part of county government. There is certainly a need to bring more parental supervision to Tampa Bay & Co. Hillsborough should explore whether giving elected officials more direct say would improve operations or at least control expenses. Tax records show that in 2009, the latest year available, Catoe was paid $241,000 while at least seven other subordinates made six-figure salaries. This is big business, and the county should start treating it as such.