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  1. Business

Pinellas tourism leader resigns after questions about spending on county credit card

Downing said he has accepted a position with a private firm that specializes in hospitality development.
David Downing (left), poses with Tampa Bay RNC Host Committee CEO Ken Jones (right), and Karen Seel (center) at a Thank You Tampa Bay event sponsored by the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee. (John Pendygraft | Times

David Downing, the longtime leader of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater who worked to attract tourists to Pinellas County, resigned Monday.

In an email to county leaders, Downing said he has accepted a position with a private firm that specializes in hospitality development.

"As with any major career move, this decision does not come easily," he stated in the 1:46 p.m. email. "The opportunity to work on the private enterprise side of the tourism economy and the timing were both factors, as was the allure of a new professional challenge that allows me to remain based here in the Tampa Bay area."

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has broken records for the tax dollars it collects from tourists and others who stay in the county. By the end of 2018, Pinellas County collected about $60 million in bed tax dollars, meaning about $1 billion was spent on overnight stays — a 9 percent increase from the year before. The agency markets Pinellas County worldwide and doles out money for county events that draw large crowds.

For more than 10 days before Downing's resignation, the Tampa Bay Times had been requesting hundreds of pages of records related to his travels across the globe and the way he operates the agency. He has racked up more than $300,000 in expenses on a county credit card since 2014, including thousands on meals and alcohol. It's unclear who Downing treats because the records are shielded.

After the Times interviewed Downing and two other county officials Friday, county administrator Barry Burton said he planned to increase oversight on Downing's travels and vacation hours. Burton said county commissioners have also requested more details about the money Downing has passed out to small groups that hold events in the county.

Downing, who has worked at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater for 12 years and earned a $215,000 salary, had not been providing any reports to the Pinellas County Commission or Tourist Development Council about the expenditures. In 2018, the tourist council directed Downing to start compiling annual reports to inform the public, records show.

Tourism leaders measure the success of a destination in terms of bed tax dollars, the amount of money collected per overnight room stay. By that metric, Pinellas County's tourism industry has been booming for the last several years. In 2015, Pinellas County approved that tax to go from 5 percent to 6 percent, or 6 cents for every dollar spent on overnight stays. A Florida county can only raise the tax once they've become a "high-impact" destination by reaching $30 million benchmark in tourism tax collection.

Florida has had seven consecutive years of traveler growth since 2010, according to data released by then-Gov. Rick Scott in late November.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said the tourism agency had "tremendous success" under Downing, adding: "I wish him well in his new endeavor."

StarLite Cruises CEO Phil Henderson, a Tourist Development Council member for 17 years, praised Downing's tenure but said he did not know Downing was planning to leave.

"I'm kind of surprised by this," Henderson said. "He has done a good job."

Burton, according to an email sent to commissioners, said he will work to appoint an interim director in the coming weeks.

Downing said he was "truly humbled" to lead the agency. His last day will be Feb. 1.

"We can all be extremely proud of the extraordinary growth of the tourism economy in Pinellas County, which has far exceeded all national benchmarks," Downing wrote.

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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