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SeaWorld executive tapped to lead Pinellas County tourism agency

After the former CEO's sudden departure, Jim Dean will take over as interim CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
Jim Dean will take over as interim director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater after exiting his role as the park CEO of SeaWorld Orlando. (Courtesy of Jim Dean
Jim Dean will take over as interim director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater after exiting his role as the park CEO of SeaWorld Orlando. (Courtesy of Jim Dean
Published Feb. 1, 2019

SeaWorld Orlando executive Jim Dean will head the Pinellas County tourism bureau following the sudden departure of CEO David Downing.

County administrator Barry Burton announced Dean as the interim president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater starting Monday. Dean is well known in the local tourism scene, having led Tampa's Busch Gardens and Adventure Island for seven years before he departed to be SeaWorld's park president in 2017.

"He brings a wealth of experience in the tourism industry," Burton said Friday. "He is well respected throughout the region and has local ties that make him a perfect fit to help us out during this transition."

Dean, 61, told the Tampa Bay Times that although the position is temporary, he's applying to fill it permanently.

"I was looking for a new challenge and timing is everything," Dean said. "David decided to move on, and sometimes you get lucky."

Friday marked Downing's last day with the tourism bureau. He announced his resignation to take a job in the private sector two weeks ago, after the Times requested hundreds of pages of public records to examine how Downing and the bureau spent its nearly $40 million budget. The Times found Downing put more than $300,000 on his county credit card and took vacations while claiming work hours for the trips.

Burton has said he plans to review all of the agency's policies and spending.

The tourism bureau is funded through the county's 6 percent bed tax on overnight stays, which came to nearly $60 million last year. Pinellas County has consistently broken its own tourism records, pulling in more and more tax dollars in the years Downing was at the helm.

Although Dean has spent his 30-year career in theme parks, he chaired Visit Tampa Bay's board in Hillsborough County during his time at Busch Gardens. He was also part of the search committee that hired Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago C. Corrada in 2013.

Corrada called Dean's appointment "a phenomenal pick."

"Jim is a real team player and gets the bay area and understands the bay area," he said. "I think he is going to be a great storyteller for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater."

Dean began his career in 1985 as an analyst with Anheuser-Busch theme parks. He steadily moved up the ranks as the company changed names and hands — it's been part of the SeaWorld corporation for the past decade. While he led Busch Gardens, the park attracted more than 6 million visitors per year and made more than $300 million.

At SeaWorld Orlando, Dean directed three flagship parks after the company announced it would end its orca breeding program and phase out whale shows, which are supposed to end this year. The SeaWorld company has started to turn around financially, posting positive results the past three quarters.

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Orlando, as a theme park destination, attracts 70 million people per year — guests Dean says he looks forward to diverting to Pinellas County.

"Nationally, internationally, everywhere I go, I see Visit. St. Pete/Clearwater," he said. "I was always amazed with how much noise they make in the world and I'm going to keep their good things going."

Burton told county staff he's working with a firm that specializes in tourism-related recruitment to fill the CEO position permanently.

It's not unusual for an interim director to stay on board. Downing, who worked with the agency for 12 years, started as interim director before taking over.

Dean expects he will be up against a lot of qualified candidates.

"Who wouldn't want to live in St. Pete/Clearwater?" he said.

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