Hiring of new tourism director questioned

June 18, 1997


Staff Writer

The new head of Washington County tourism is leaving a federal disaster area to step into a storm of controversy.

Hours after Ben R. Hart turned in his resignation as president and chief executive officer of the Greater Grand Forks, N.D., Convention and Visitors Bureau on Wednesday morning, one Washington County Commissioner questioned whether his hiring here should be put on hold.

Ron Stansbury, president of the temporary board of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, announced Hart had been chosen as the bureau's executive director.

The announcement came in the midst of a heated Wednesday afternoon meeting with the commissioners and members of Washington County's Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.


"All I know is they have offered me the job and I have accepted it," said Hart in a telephone interview from his Grand Forks office.

But after Wednesday's tourism meeting at the Four Points Hotel, Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said the transition team's decisions should be put on hold, including the hiring of Hart, until differences can be worked out between the two groups.

Several commissioners said they were concerned the transition team had overstepped its authority by hiring and firing employees.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop said the team was given two tasks - to determine qualifications for a new board of directors for the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and to determine a way for towns to pay for local events.

Instead, it has closed two tourism offices, fired some employees and hired Hart.

Commissioner James Wade said he had not expected the team to close information centers at Breezewood, Pa., and Williamsport.

"We personally feel that tax dollars shouldn't be spent by anybody until somebody sees a general business plan," said Commissioners Vice President John Shank.

Ron Stansbury, president of the transition team that is acting as the bureau's board of directors until the first week in September, said everything will be put on hold until the differences can be worked out with the commissioners.

Both groups will meet in the Washington County Administration Building at 10 a.m. on Friday, Bowers said.

Stansbury said Hart was the best of six candidates interviewed by the transition team.

"I think that he will take the assets that we have and market them as a destination," said Stansbury. Hart will market the area for regional and global tourism, he said.

Hart could arrive in Hagerstown at the end of the month to open the "new" tourism bureau on July 1, but isn't expected to start running day-to-day operations until mid-August, officials said.

Hart said he was excited and enthusiastic about Washington County after visiting the area two weeks ago.

He said he will remain in the Grand Forks office, where he has been president since 1994, until the end of July.

Despite disastrous flooding in Grand Forks, Hart said tourism was doing fine.

"The ironic thing is that all our hotels are full and restaurants are full" with emergency crews and journalists, Hart said.

Until Hart assumes his duties here, Maryland's assistant director for tourism development, Julie Heizer, will run the local tourism bureau, Stansbury said.

George Williams, the state tourism director, said the state will foot the bill for the salaries of Heizer and her assistant while they run the office.

Local tourism office employees, including Executive Director Leroy Burtner, are scheduled to leave their jobs by July 1 under a restructuring that will shift the agency's funding priorities from salaries to marketing efforts.

Hart will be paid $50,000 annually and eventually will have the opportunity to earn up to $60,000 a year with incentives, Stansbury said.

Heizer will hire some part-time employees to help run the Public Square office, he said. But Hart will hire the new full-time sales person.

According to Hart's resume, he has served as head of tourism for The Dalles Convention and Visitors Bureau in Oregon, the Colorado Tourism Board in Denver and the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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