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Heiser Time Over: Tourism Council’s Trusted Executive Resigns; Turbulence Ahead

| October 20, 2011

Peggy Heiser was the Flagler Tourist Development Council's monthly star attraction.

Peggy Heiser was the Flagler Tourist Development Council's monthly star attraction.

In an abrupt move that shocked even her closest ally on the Tourist Development Council, Peggy Heiser, tourism’s chief executive in Flagler County for the past six years and the shepherd of its “Quiet Side of Florida” campaign, announced her resignation on Thursday, saying she’d taken another marketing position. The position is reportedly in Lake Mary, though she’ll also be doing some marketing for her husband’s company.

“All good things must come to an end and so, this must, too,” Heiser said in a release from the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been an incredible journey, and I’m proud of the advancement the chamber tourism team and the Flagler County Tourism Development Council have made in marketing Flagler County as a desirable tourism destination.”

“Obviously it’s a huge loss, there’s no doubt about it,” Milissa Holland, the county commissioner who chairs the tourist council, said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to bring somebody comparable to her.”

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Heiser made back-to-back calls to council members this morning to inform them of her decision.

“It’s a shock,” Mary DiStefano, a long-time council member who represents Palm Coast, said. DiStefano put in her last meeting on the council on Wednesday as her tenure on the Palm Coast City Council draws to an end. “She does an excellent job. Excellent job, and she has really worked hard on tourism, and I really regret losing her. But she has a long distance to drive and I think the distance might be getting to her.”

Last month Heiser experienced a rare but significant setback. She’d asked for a 7.7 percent raise for herself (she makes $70,000 a year) and a 6 percent raise for her two staffers. The council approved the raises. The Flagler County Commission, which must ratify all council actions, did not, saying its own government employees hadn’t received raises in three years. “Obviously she was disappointed about that but I don’t believe that drove her decision,” Holland said.

Heiser’s husband, Bill Heiser, owns Southern Coast K9, a company that imports and trains police dogs. Heiser, who’d been commuting 90 minutes a day to New Smyrna Beach, will be reportedly focusing her attention on that business for now, and on her 13-year-old daughter.

Peggy Heiser

For the tourist council, the resignation will be jarring on several counts, not least of which the matter of Heiser’s succession: even though Heiser essentially reported to the council, enacted the council’s strategy and administered public money raised exclusively through the bed tax (which applies to hotel and motel stays and is paid overwhelmingly by visitors), she was not a council employee. Her actual title is vice president of tourism development at the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. The council contracts with the chamber to use Heiser’s and her staff’s services, but her paycheck is signed by the chamber. Heiser’s replacement will be hired by Doug Baxter, the chamber president. Council members, especially Holland, might like to have input in the decision. Whether they do or not will say a lot about the chamber’s respect for the council, and its willingness to defer to its goals.

Baxter is big on taking credit for as many things as he can. On tourism, Heiser gradually overshadowed–and upstaged–him. Her departure could, depending on the chamber board’s direction, give Baxter a chance to take back the reins of tourism by hiring someone who’d be more his ally than Holland’s–and potentially hurt Holland politically, who’s made tourism a central plank of her commission tenure, with visible success. There’s likely to be some behind-the-scene jockeying and politicking over the position.

“Doug will go through the process of determining qualified candidates,” Lea Stokes, who chairs the chamber board, said today. “As far as the chamber board I’m not sure what role we’ll play at this time.” She said there will be discussions with Baxter about that role.

Baxter said he and Chamber Executive Vice President Rebecca DeLorenzo will be doing the interviewing to fill the position by year’s end. But, he added: “We’re more than happy to invite any member of the tourism development council to come in and be part of the interviewing process if that’s what they would like to do.”

doug baxter flagler county chamber of commerce president flaglerlive

Doug Baxter (© FlaglerLive)

“We hope,” Baxter said, “the politics doesn’t play any part in this. What we’re looking to do is hire a qualified person that knows tourism to fill the position. As seamlessly as possible we move from one VP top another.” For now, the chamber president said, there is at least one silver lining to the situation: “The beauty of the timing is the fact that the budget is in place for another year, basically, as of right now, so everything is very organized on what the program is going to do for the next year. That gives the new VP time to get accustomed to what we do here, as well as Peggy built a relationship with the Tourist Development Council over time, and that will happen with the new person.” Baxter was quick to dismiss matters of ego. “It’s not as if it’s an ego thing for me or has been for Peggy,” he said, noting the set-up at the chamber: Heiser ran her department with significant autonomy from Baxter. “It was not for me to step in and say I want the glory. I’m not about that. And neither was Peggy for that matter.” Baxter doesn’t expect that to be an issue with the new person, either.

The nine-member council, a mixture of government and tourism industry representatives, has grown attached–and dependent–on Heiser and her clear, aggressively no non-sense style. Nowhere is that virtual co-dependence more apparent than between Heiser and Holland.

Holland several years ago had been at loggerheads with Heiser, when Holland first got on the council, only to become Heiser’s champion and ally as both, through a lengthy process of education (about each other, the local economy and local politics), moved tourism to the center of the county’s economic development strategies, raising the bed tax to 4 percent–and increasing hotel stays in the county significantly in the past year, despite the economic slowdown. For most of this year the pair put on a road show for some two dozen government agencies, community and civic organizations to better acquaint them with the council’s direction and to get a broader understanding of the county’s leisure diversity. They were welcomed and cheered wherever they went.

When the county for most of the year debated and agonized over how to move economic development forward in Flagler, one of the rare recurring point of agreement was that the organization should be modeled after the TDC, with an executive modeled after Heiser.

milissa holland flagler county commission flaglerlive

Milissa Holland (© FlaglerLive)

“We think so much alike with these issues, she can sit down say something and I get it immediately,” Holland said during an interview a few months ago. “I can call her about this art walk, and I’m like, you know, there’s this opportunity here, we need to capitalize on it, and she’s–absolutely, I get it.”

“We play off each other’s strengths,” Heiser said at the time, “and utilize those to move forward in efforts that are bringing a return, bringing a result that ultimately they wanted to see, and it’s happening fairly rapidly.”

Her monthly presentations to the council became dubbed “Heiser Time” as she outlined month after month various gains in bed tax revenue or Flagler’s visibility or her own efforts to travel to conventions and conferences–she happens to be at one today, in Polk County–to market the county’s tourist potential. Much of the council’s oversight was made easier through Heiser’s command of its $1.3 million budget and her efficient way of dealing with innumerable applicants for TDC grants the council and the county commission must approve. The grant process was tightened considerably on Holland’s and Heiser’s watch to increase accountability and ensure that grant recipients proved that their events increased hotel stays in the county. “The perception is that I’m a gate-keeper,” Heiser said a few months ago. “I’m not a gate-keeper. I’m an educator.”

But the council was looking to Heiser to be just that gate-keeper. Whoever replaces Heiser will have to travel a lengthy and complex learning curve, shifting the gate-keeping role back to the council.

The chamber said a complete job description and candidate qualification requirements will be posted on on Monday, Oct. 23. All employment related questions, phone calls and resumes should be directed to 386/586.5171.

“We certainly wish Peggy all the best and we’re thankful that we had the opportunity to work with her,” Stokes, the chamber board chair, said.

“Peggy’s done a terrific job over the last six years here,” Baxter said. “I’ve worked with her now for over four and a half years. I’ve watched Peggy grow, I’ve watched tourism grow, I’ve watched the bed tax grow, I’ve watched occupancy grow. She set the bar high.” The challenge is to find someone who can match that height.

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36 Responses for “Heiser Time Over: Tourism Council’s Trusted Executive Resigns; Turbulence Ahead”

  1. PalmCoastPioneers says:

    The Palm Harbor Shopping Center is part of the Federally Ordered REDRESS for Palm Coast, Inc.
    The Federal Trade Commission required I.T.T. to build a one stop shopping center. Its designer was Nationally famous Hass and Reid. That is how the Interstate Interchange came about also, Federally required for Palm Coast and the completion of St. Joe Grade. ( St. Joe Grade is aka Palm Coast Parkway, it references Brigadeer General Jose Martin Hernandez third Plantation St. Joes where is right there – St. Joe Grade and the present Publix Shopping Center and Florida Park Drive. )
    The present Bank location is very important also. We just prepared a massive amount of documentation and xeroxing for it so that preparations can be made for our Heritage and History. That location was ordered as REDRESS also and the first bank there processed 36,000 sales in just a few years when Palm Coast just started. ITT used only the best which is why so many people bought here then.
    We gave the documentation to the Bank and they have forwarded it to the Whitney Bank Corporate Offices; hopefully initially we will get a placque there. That would be nice for starters.

    For those wishing to read the Federal ‘Consent Agreement’ for ‘The Palm Coast Project’ go to the Federal Trade Commission site and pull up Docket C-2854. Therein it clearly states a one stop shopping center, etc. etc. etc. etc.

    RE: HASS Architects designed it so it would not look like a strip mall , treeless and no personality and character. That is why you see a lot of Coquina and Wood so that it blends in with the Environment .
    For those interested in the Nationally known Architectural Firm :

    HAAS Joseph Brooks Haas, 87, a longtime resident of Jacksonville, passed away on November 12, 2010, at the Mayo Clinic. He was born on February 28, 1923, in Savannah, Georgia, where his father served in the Army Corp of Engineers for many years. His family then moved to Brunswick, Georgia and he graduated from Glynn Academy in 1940. He attended Georgia Tech and graduated in the top of his class in 1943 with a degree in Architecture, where he was a member of Sigma Chi Fraternity. Brooks served in the infantry in World War II as a Lieutenant and engaged in combat experience in the European Theatre of Operations where he learned snow skiing, one of his favorite lifelong sports. In 1947, Brooks returned to Jacksonville where he married Harriet Farwell and began practicing architecture with the firm of Reynolds, Smith, and Hills. Then, he later developed his own firm, Haas & Reed Architects, which became a premier commercial architectural design firm representing municipalities, financial institutions, physicians, county, state, and federal governmental entities, and industrial clients. He also provided architectural and planning services for Grandfather Golf and Country Club, as well as portions of Sugar Mountain and Beach Mountain in North Carolina. He was preceded in death by his wife, Deborah Stephens Haas; his son, Bruce Farwell Haas and his wife, Jackie; his brother, Morton V. Haas and his wife, Jean; and his father, Morton V. Haas, and his mother, Elizabeth Frances Abrams Haas. He is survived by Harriet Farwell Mott, the mother of his children, Robert V. Haas and his wife, Deena of Albany, Georgia; Elizabeth A. Haas ‘Bootsy’; as well as three grandchildren, Ashley Brook Knebel, Haley Plaire Haas, and Gwenn Margretta and her husband, Pete; one great grandchild, Rilyn Kai Taylor; nephew, Dr. Christopher Haas and his wife, Ellen; great nephews, Payton Haas and Graham Haas; great niece, Christen Haas; and sister-in-law, Marsha Slick and her husband Clyde Slick and children. Brooks was a member of the Rotary Club, Florida Yacht Club, Ponte Vedra Club and Christ Church of Ponte Vedra Beach. He was a world traveler, an avid snow skier, tennis player, fisherman, fencer and had a passion for sailing the British Virgin Islands. Brooks was a respected Architect and father who will be greatly missed by all of his family and friends. Visitation will be held from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, November 17th in Quinn-Shalz Funeral Home. Funeral Services will be held at 10:00 a.m., Thursday, November 18th in Christ Episcopal Church followed by a reception. Burial will take place in Jacksonville National Cemetery at 2:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Jacksonville Humane Society, 8464 Beach Boulevard, Jacksonville, FL 32216 or Christ Church, 400 San Juan Drive, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082. Please visit our online Tribute at .


  2. Layla says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing that. It does indeed merit saving and preserving.


  3. palmcoaster says:

    Yes Lyla, should be preserved as will be our future vintage and environmentally friendly Palm Harbor Shopping. Enough is that we lost our beloved Sheraton ITT/Palm Coast Resort nestled among a gorgeous hammock of towering and centenary huge Oaks all uprooted for the greedy sake of a developer (Centex) and the cheering FCCOC, to give us the pathetic curve appeal that we see today, right behind of what is left of our Palm Coast Marina. By the way now is the time that we get our Marina back from Pulte’s hands still, before the statute of limitation expires.Was one of us, the Palmcoasters grandfathering amenities stripped from us illegally. We, the city should get the Marina back…as is still self sufficient. I don’t care which city official runs his business from it now.


  4. PalmCoastPioneers says:

    Reply to Palm Coaster and Lyla:
    Thank you very much for your support.
    Our thinking is that if we get the many Heritage and Historical Areas/ Acreage ‘Marked ‘ Historically by the State, even recognized by the city , that would help the struggling families here since Tourism brings people.
    That is why we keep plugging along tho’ our Bucket list is large and time is not on our side.
    Please keep your fingers crossed on our first cherished and beloved first Bank location. That is where Mr. Joseph Malatino, another Palm Coast Pioneer who has passed, started the Building Fund for ‘Mother Seton’ and others did the same for the Churches and Temple here Building Funds.
    Can you imagine…. 36,000 House/ Lots / Lots packages passed through that Bank in just a few years.
    A rough calculation for us is that $ 178,000,000.00 dollars 1970′s U.S. passed through their Vault.
    We ask for help on Flagler Live Readers – Does anyone know the signifigance of the ‘Jefferson Davis Waterway’ and ‘Lake Success’ passing through our cherished and beloved Matanzas Woods Golf Course?
    Any Heritage and Historic Minded people living in the ‘Community of Matanzas Woods’ that would like to start this recognition?
    Thank you very much for your support.
    Keep your fingers crossed that the Whitney Bank recognizes the merit of what the Bank they now own.
    We can hope for the struggling families -
    For PalmCoaster: the Palm Coast Marina Complex a.k.a. Palm Coast Resort #2 Harborside is also Federal REDRESS ordered for us for Palm Coast , Inc., and of course to benefit present Palm Coasters and all future Palm Coasters.
    Interesting factoid- Palm Coast Community Properties are so Gargantuan they even extend to St. Johns County. Consequently when the Federal ‘Consent Agreements’ and all the State of Florida Department of Community Affairs, etc., ‘ Agreements’ came into being all had to be recorded not only in Flagler County Official Records but also the Records of St. Johns County too.
    Don’t forget we are of LEVITT fame – the largest LEVITT Community and the last planned before he sold it to I.T.T. – that is why people came here in the past because of all the many Amenities / Features/ Improvements/ Acreage offered by Levitt who had a stellar reputation with Levittown. Levittown has a Historical Marker -


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