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County panel considers raising tourism boss pay


Published:   |   Updated: August 21, 2014 at 11:51 AM

A higher salary may be in store for the next executive director of the county’s tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Members of the county’s Tourist Development Council voiced worries Wednesday that insufficient pay may drive top talent to other destinations after the department’s longtime head D.T. Minich left this month to take a new post in Osceola County.

Part of an upcoming search for Minich’s replacement will involve gathering information on pay for tourism agency directors and top staff in similar travel spots across the state.

The TDC also discussed the merits of shifting the county’s public model of controlling bed tax dollars with frequent oversight by the county commission to a more flexible privatized model embraced by Osceola and other local Florida governments.

Though many members of the tourism board appeared reluctant to make Visit St. Pete/Clearwater private, most favored the possibility of increasing salaries to compete with other agencies or even tying pay raises to performance goals.

“As we perform well and others are attracted to our leader, they will pick off our leaders because we can’t compete,” said Tim Bogott, CEO of the TradeWinds Resort in St. Pete Beach.

Although Minich proved successful in leading Visit St. Pete/Clearwater out of the recession into back-to-back years of rec­ord bed tax collections during the past seven years, his annual salary of $164,444 remained mostly static.

His new role leading Experience Kissimmee comes with a package exceeding $200,000, including salary, benefits and incentives, agency officials said.

County Administrator Mark Woodard, who ultimately sets pay rates for staff positions, may change the scale for the tourism agency director job based on research of similar positions.

He told the TDC board Wednesday the search for Minich’s replacement could take five months.

The county commission also has asked staff to analyze alternative models for running VSPC that would allow for more flexibility in terms of pay, incentives and spending that are subject to county approval.

Tourism officials often must make quick decisions or work out financial agreements that involve sensitive information, both of which can be difficult to do under a strict public approval process, said Walter Klages, a travel analyst who researched various models used across the state.

“From the public’s point of view, if it’s public, then you have oversight and transparency, control and, of course, you have constraints,” said Klages, president of Research Data Services, which provides monthly travel data for Pinellas.

Osceola County this week opted to privatize tourism promotion for Experience Kissimmee through a new not-for-profit organization that Minich will lead.

But in Pinellas, where commissioners and members of the TDC generally have shared a unified vision for tourism spending, the public model has worked well.

Minich’s tenure was by no means brief, and the county previously has enjoyed long-serving executive directors, said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who serves on the TDC.

“Someone is always going to leave because of the challenge of going someplace else or because of more money,” Cretekos said. “That doesn’t mean our operation is faulty.”

The county in 1998 voted to dissolve its private not-for-profit organization in favor of the current public model and has seen strong continuity since then, TDC Chairwoman Karen Seel said.

“We’ve had a lot of stability,” she said.

Bogott mentioned interim VSPC Director David Downing as a candidate for the executive director role, but Downing shied away from weighing in on how the future director and other staff should be compensated.

Models for pay and what role the county government plays in decisions varies significantly from one place to another, he said.

“It’s open to whatever this board wants it to be,” Downing said.

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