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Search for the next CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is about to begin

The tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is known for its creative and sometimes aggressive approach to luring visitors, including through social media. [Times (2013)]
The tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is known for its creative and sometimes aggressive approach to luring visitors, including through social media. [Times (2013)]
Published Mar. 4, 2019

As a former SeaWorld executive gets settled as the interim head of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton is on the hunt for the tourism agency's permanent leader.

Burton announced late last week that the county has hired Minnesota-based Searchwide Global — which specializes in finding leadership talent in the tourism sector — to help select former president and CEO David Downing's replacement.

Downing left abruptly in January shortly after the Tampa Bay Times submitted records requests seeking to examine his spending habits. The search for his replacement is expected to take several months.

"I think in this position we need someone who has experience to be able to evaluate what we are doing well and capitalize on that," Burton told the Times. "We've been very effective over the years, and I'm looking for someone to continue that momentum."

Running Visit St. Pete-Clearwater should be an attractive gig, as Pinellas County continues to cement itself as one of the state's most popular destinations. Its success is largely measured by growth in county bed tax collection — the 6 percent visitor tax collected on overnight stays. During the 2018 fiscal year, the county collected an all-time high of nearly $60 million in bed tax dollars.

The bulk of that money — around $40 million — is used by the tourism agency to market the county as a destination. In December, the last month on record, the county collected nearly $100,000 more than it had the year before. The only recent months during which there was a decline in tax collections, and therefore visitors, was during the peak of Red Tide algae bloom that all but shut down some county beaches.

Interim director Jim Dean, who spent decades running or helping run theme parks such as Tampa's Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, has said he will apply for the role. Burton and Searchwide are still preparing the job advertisement that will be posted publicly so they can begin accepting resumes.

"In my short time in Pinellas County, I certainly appreciate the importance of hiring the very best President and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater," Burton wrote in a letter to staff dated March 1. "While this is my decision, there are so many of you who have deep roots and experience that will be invaluable to me during this process."

Burton said he created a search process similar to what led to his own selection as administrator in the fall of 2018.

Searchwide will direct the nationwide recruitment and screen qualified applications for Burton's review. Burton will then discuss the candidates with members of two committees he has created.

The policy committee includes County Commission chair Karen Seel, hoteliers Russ Kimball and Anthony Satterfield and the head of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, Thomas Jewsbury. The staff advisory committee includes assistant county administrator Paul Sacco, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater vice president of digital and communications Leroy Bridges and a handful of other tourism bureau employees.

The committees will meet with candidates and give feedback before Burton selects the finalists, which will be made public. Those finalists will go on to meet the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, the Tourist Development Council and other county tourism partners.

"Throughout this entire process I want to have an open, fair and transparent process," Burton wrote in his letter to staff.

He said finalists also will be interviewed during a public meeting, the format for which is still being decided.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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