Earlier this month County Commissioner George Hanns, after discussions with County Administrator Craig Coffey, floated an odd idea. He wanted county government to absorb the tourism office, a private entity that’s currently part of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. The county contracts with the tourism office to manage the $1.5 million in revenue from Flagler’s 4 percent sales surtax, or bed tax, that’s levied on all hotel, motel and short-term rental transactions. The office’s mission is to markets the county and maximize tourists’ influx.
The tourism office staff, including Georgia Turner, its chief, didn’t want to be absorbed. The Tourist Development Council’s members, who advise the county commission, didn’t want it absorbed. The chamber of commerce didn’t want it absorbed. And as time went on, nor did some county commissioners. “It’s not broke,” Commissioner Charlie Ericksen said. “Why fix it?”
If anything, Turner said, the tourism office is striving to move away from the chamber—to be an entity on its own, independent of either the chamber or the county, and that may happen at the end of the next—and presumably last—three-year contractual agreement the TDC is signing with the county next month.
“Ultimately the tourism development staff would like to stand on its own, to be an entity on its own, but we’re not ready to do that,” Turner said Wednesday. “Other organizations similar to ours are stand-alone agencies. That’s just something to strive for.”
But joining the county? No. “We’ve had a lot of discussion with the TDC members, I have personally, and with the different commissioners,” Turner said, “and I think right now hopefully we all agree the chamber is the best place to be right now, as we grow. Because we’re a very young organizations still. We’ve got a ways to grow.”
Those discussions took place this week in one-on-one meetings between Turner and four of the five commissioners (Barbara Revels was the exception).
“I don’t think that the ramifications or the unintended consequences really came out,” Rebecca DeLorenzo, the chamber president, said Monday, referring to Hanns’s proposal. “We’re actually meeting with him tomorrow to discuss it fully and hopefully put it to bed.”
Hanns thought consolidating the tourism office with the county would save money, if it followed the same model as the county’s $500,000 economic development office, which also has a nine-member advisory board. But the consolidation would have inevitably raised issues of control, with the county—whose rivalry with Palm Coast at times influences policy—aiming to put a more pronounced imprint on the tourism office than the office might tolerate: just this year the office rebranded itself as “Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches,” irking a segment of the county while amplifying Palm Coast’s voice (and presence) in its defining logo, though without altering the office’s strategy.
“We’re always looking for ways to save money,” Hanns said, speaking of concern about staff stability at the five-person tourism office. “As of lately we’ve been having a lot of turnover with people going elsewhere, with people using it as a stepping stone, if you will. I just feel the benefits aren’t bad at the chamber but they’re not as good as a county employee, and since we’re paying them anyway I thought the same comparison would be like when we had Helga bring her operation into the county.” That’s Helga van Eckert, the director of economic development. She didn’t so much bring an operation into the county as the county started a new economic development office, hiring her to head it.
“We have a good rapport, everything is in the sunshine, it’s really good and I’m comfortable with that,” Hanns said, referring to the economic development model. “So my proposal is to have the TDC employees as county employees. They’ll get a little better benefits, they’ll be less likely to move on, and I think they’ll be more efficient. It won’t hurt the chamber because the location would still be at the chamber office, so they’ll still be doing the same thing there. But we’re always looking for ways to streamline, make things a little more efficient, a little less costly, and I do believe that would be a very good thing if the board agrees with it.”
By leaving the tourism office where it is, the county would be assuming $14,000 in annual rent that it would not otherwise pay if the tourism office was in a government building. In County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin’s estimation, consolidation would end up costing the county more, not less, than leaving the tourism office as a contractor.
“I guess the pros would be that the employees would gain benefits and retirement system and the health program and all that,” McLaughlin said. “The cons is that that’ll cost more tax dollars to do that, because they’re not getting those now under their current program, so you’d have to shift dollars to that to cover them. Right now the program that we have, the relationship that we have is working. I really don’t see changing anything as far as the structure.”
There’s been some turnover, but it hasn’t been the sort of turnover provoked by dissatisfaction or dissention in the ranks. This month the tourism office’s Casey Ryan, who was product development manager, became Palm Coast’s events coordinator, for a considerable raise: she was making $35,000 at the tourism office, she’s now making $52,400. She’ll still be working very closely with Turner and the tourism office. Jeanine Volpe, who’d been an administrative assistant since 2011 (at a $25,000 salary) chose to return to real estate, working for Coldwell Banker as the local housing industry appears to be revving up again.
Amy Lukasik, the tourism marketing manager (at a salary of $41,200), and of course Turner ($65,000) are not going anywhere. (The budget the TDC approved earlier this week and that the county commission is slated to approve next week grants Turner and Lukasik a 3 percent raise.) Nor is Thomas Rominger, who works part-time at the Flagler Beach Historical Museum on the TDC’s dime ($8,000).
TDC employees have their own benefits package, including health and dental. They just don’t have public employees’ membership in the Florida Retirement System.
Most such tourism offices have become autonomous across the state, Turner said. But the autonomy is limited by dint of the tourism offices’ funding sources: the 4 percent bed tax remains a source of exclusively county revenue. Spending every dime of that revenue must be approved by the county commission, and overseen by the Tourist Development Council, the advisory body, with all transactions and proceedings falling under the transparency laws of the state.
Judging by two measures—bed tax revenue and the number of visitors coming in—the office has done a good job: revenue is expected to be 7 percent higher when this fiscal year ends than it was last year. And a just-released survey for the tourism office by Mid-Florida Marketing and Research estimates that some 1.6 million visitors came through Flagler County in 2011-12. The survey may overstate the numbers: it’s based on phone surveys of just 1,020 people and a review of 8,000 records, and the researchers put their confidence level for their numbers at 89 percent, with some numbers proving quite surprising: the survey found that just 4 percent of visitors were from Canada, and 2 percent from the rest of the world, and that 76 percent of visitors—from anywhere—came to Flagler without children. Still, the survey provides a more empirical measure of visitors to the county than the tourism office has had in the past, Turner said.
In her meetings with commissioners, Turner heard Ericksen’s sentiment echoed: the tourism office is not broken, so it doesn’t need fixing. But it may well migrate into its own entity next time contract talks are up.